Purity and Circumcision

Purity – Parashat Tazria & Metzora (פרשת תזריע־מצרע)

by

Howard Adelman

When I explored the interpretations of Aaron’s response – silence – to the death of his two oldest sons at the hands of God because they had contaminated the holy of holies by not observing the precise instructions to be followed in performing a sacrifice, I did not explore the objective circumstances which ostensibly gave rise to those two deaths and the issue of ritual purity that dominates not only the Aaron story, but this whole section of Leviticus and, in particular, the parshah for this week. Those dictates governing purity entail not only the issue of sacrifice in the holy of holies, but also, for example, the ritual of purification when a woman immerses in a mikvah and when a male Jewish infant is circumcised on the eighth day of his life.

Purity is, and always has been, a health issue. This is clear in the discussions of tzaraat, usually translated, and for many, mistranslated, as leprosy, but which might be black mold, psoriasis, a terrible rash or Hansen’s disease. Purification using spring water, two birds (!), a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread and a bundle of hyssop is involved so that a contemporary reader may suspect that he or she is reading about voodoo medicine. However, I want to concentrate on brit milah, ritual circumcision of male infants, rather than treatment of tzaraat or immersion in a mikvah following a woman’s period of menstruation or as integral to a process of conversion.

In the mikvah ritual, purification is said to be necessary because the discharge of female blood into and through the vagina is viewed as impure. In the brit milah of an infant male, blood is spilled to bring about purification. Or is the process for the purpose of purification? After all, there is no suggestion that the foreskin is impure, only the possibility in modern science that retention of the foreskin may create a greater propensity for accumulating impurities.

Let me expand on this latter issue, if only to get it out of the way. (An article by Aaron E. Carroll in The New Health Care, 9 May 2016, explores these issues more deeply.) The judgement of the net benefits of circumcision to health has seesawed back and forth between an estimate that health benefits of circumcision are not significant enough to inflict pain on the infant to the 2012 conclusion of the American Academy of Pediatrics restoring an older determination that the health benefits outweighed any risks involved in the procedure, especially if the procedure follows strict purity rules. The implication was not that every male child should undergo circumcision, but that circumcision should be available to every male infant and be covered by health insurance for significant savings in health costs over the long run.

Why? Circumcised penises have lower levels of yeast and bacteria. Higher levels of the latter are correlated with greater risk for developing urinary tract infections. Thus, the chance of a boy contracting a urinary tract infection is ten times greater for a male with an uncircumcised penis than for a male with a circumcised penis. But the benefits are too small to make male circumcision mandatory since the incidence of urinary tract infection is so low that perhaps only 1 additional male in 100 would be prevented from contracting a urinary tract infection if the practice of male circumcision was made universal. This is particularly true because correlation does not entail causation; other factors may be more significant as causes –parents of circumcised male infants may culturally wash penises more regularly, as may adult males. No one knows.

However, other risks of disease are reduced – penile cancer (again, relatively rare), H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis or herpes. The only statistical benefit that emerges as very significant is the chance on contracting H.I.V. – a 1-2% reduction in the rate of the disease when males are circumcised. Male circumcision can be considered preventive, akin to getting a vaccination.

What is the downside? Medical complications from the procedure. Arguably, reduced sexual satisfaction, but little evidence to support such a belief. But the only issue of any significance is the pain inflicted on the male infant. Many would argue that the pain is minimal when local anaesthetics ae used and very short lived – in contrast when the procedure is performed on an adult male.

There is also the issue of social benefits to health and not just individual benefits. Perhaps an argument can be made in terms of society benefit resulting from lower rates of sexually transmitted diseases, especially H.I.V., which is why vaccines are almost mandatory. Again, the economic benefits to society as a whole are small compared to the claim that the rights of the child are infringed upon by the commission of intentional harm without significant benefit.  The pinprick of a vaccination needle does not change the body. Male circumcision does.

On balance, the case for male circumcision becoming a community wide standard practice is more positive than negative, but, unlike fluoridation of water, which also results in somatic changes – strengthening teeth and the resistance to dental caries – the health benefits of male circumcision are relatively marginal.

In other words, the issue of male circumcision of an infant at eight days of age is ultimately much more an issue of religious ritual purity rather than physical purity or health.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that, “Circumcision is the physical expression of the faith that lives in love.” Sanctification transforms the connection between sex and violence to a connection between sex and love. His argument boils down to infant circumcision defining the relationship of a man to his wife, turning biology into spirituality, converting the male propensity to want to reproduce to perpetuate his genes to a partnership of man and wife, a partnership of mutual affirmation. Sacks is clearly a feminist. Power is sacrificed in favour of love and relationship, not only between a male and his female partner, but between man and God, between God and the people of Israel, God’s wife. Purity entails staying monogamous; promiscuity is a betrayal of both God and one’s wife. Baal must be transformed by circumcising male power and transforming sex in the process from an act of biological drive to a choice of love, to a covenantal rather than a power relationship.

As much as I sympathize with the goal, I do not buy into this romanticizing of the ritual of circumcision. For it is a ritual between a father and son, between God and a male Jew. In actuality, the mother usually stays in another room because she is so fearful and appalled by the pain being inflicted upon her newborn infant. Since the event – barring exceptions because of the health of the newborn – takes place on the eighth day, and the world was created symbolically in seven days, Rabbi Sacks may be on the right track in suggesting that the brit is a first stage in transforming the laws of nature into cultural practices on route to creating a civilization. But what precisely is unnatural about the act of circumcision?

It may also have to do with the Jewish conception that practice precedes faith. Do it and you may come to understand. Hence, not only must the procedure shunt aside any “rights of the child,” but it cannot be left until the male is older or even an adult when it is much more painful as well as a greater risk. Further, it is an exercise in branding, in implanting in the flesh a spiritual message. But it is not like a tattoo on the arm. It is the foreskin of the penis that is cut, not because it is a lowly organ as some Jewish puritans contend, but because it is central to propagation – both to physical propagation and to Jewish continuity. The transformation of male/female relations could qualify, except that there is little indication that the circumcision has anything to do with sex.

What could it be about? The bris physically symbolizes the relationship between God and the Jewish people as indicated when Abraham, at the age of ninety-nine, circumcised himself as a brand upon his flesh signifying the covenant that he had made with God. There is no mention that God empathized with that pain and experienced suffering because of it. But Abraham not only suffered pain when he circumcised himself, but suffered a much greater pain when he was commanded to sacrifice his son. (Genesis 21:4) The circumcision commemorates Abraham’s pain much more than that of an infant eight-day-old male.

When a father, even if only through a surrogate, cuts the foreskin of his own son, the pain is direct and not just in the imagination as it is for the mother. When a father marks his son with a permanent alteration in his son’s flesh, in one of if not the most significant organs of the male as a male, then the issue is at its core about the willingness, against all one’s personal sympathies for the child, to inflict pain on one’s own son.

God does it to man. (Women suffer naturally in childbirth.) A father does it to his son. The ritual is akin to the one the priest performs when incense is brought daily before God. The latter must be done with exact precision. So too must the circumcision of the infant child be. Further, it must be an act carried out in great sobriety and with proper preparation. But with help from the community – the mohel who serves as the surrogate, the sandek who holds the child’s legs apart, the kvatters, the messengers who carry the infant on behalf of the grief-stricken mother. Though the brit milah is a celebration, that takes place afterwards. The ritual up to that point is about sacrifice and pain. The infant brought forth to have his foreskin sacrificed and to be made part o those blessed.

Why blessed? Cutting a penis and calling it a blessing, inflicting pain on an infant and calling it highly significant, that is the real dilemma of the ritual. The actual pain may be slight and the health benefits may be real even if not huge, but the ritual is clearly what the ceremony is about. It is an irreversible act entailing the sacrifice of a symbolic token of flesh taken from an organ of male reproduction to point to the need, not to just reproduce children, but to reproduce male children with a mark cut into them, a mark indicating a covenant.

That is the crunch point. What is the covenant about? Some take it to be about strict obedience to God’s commands. But the Jewish people continually challenged God. The relationship was not a pacific one. There were thrusts and parries. But at all times, in your heart – God could even kill your two oldest sons – even if God’s act was disproportionate and wrong, it was not perceived to result from malice, but for one’s own good.

So too the action of the father. However a father fails his son, it is not out of malice. A father must not only teach his son that he loves him, but that the son must never absolutely trust his father. Even one’s own father can give one pain, and do it when one is most vulnerable. Rather than teaching absolute obedience and absolute perfection of a father-figure, even a father you love can betray your trust, can betray your faith.

A Jewish circumcised male is given a permanent reminder both that he cannot trust his penis, which seems to have a “mind” of its own, but cannot even absolutely trust his father. Distrust, not absolute faith, must be an integral part of the relationship between man and God, between a son and his father, and between humans and their relationship to authority figures.

Leviticus 10:10 reads, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” Circumcision is the first step in making a Jewish male infant into a holy being, not holy because he surrenders himself in total faith to another, but because he is branded in his flesh to always distrust another no matter how much he loves and respects that other. To be clean is not to be immaculate. Pure faith is restricted to the holy of holies. However, it is the wholly holy which is unclean in the analogy. To be clean is to engage in the right balance between trust and distrust, between total trust in one’s father and also guarded that even a loving father can betray you. Purity must be applied to the ordinary, to the common, to make sure the flesh is not contaminated. But purity of the spirit does not belong in the common, in the flesh, for in this world we need both trust and distrust.

To quote a blog I wrote a year ago: “If a father who so loves his long longed-for son, no one more so than Abraham, is capable of cutting his eight-day-old son, and cutting him in his sexual organ, inflicting pain, however minimal, where the son will carry the badge of a Jew, in his flesh and in his psyche, for his entire life, then the message tattooed in the flesh is that no one can be completely trusted – including God in Judaism in contrast to Christianity.”

Silences: Responses to Personal Loss

My Silences in Response to Personal Loss

by

Howard Adelman

God slew Aaron’s two oldest sons for an infraction they made in carrying out a sacrifice in the holy of holies. Moses responded by reinforcing the importance of following God’s commandments precisely. Aaron responded in silence.

That silence is interpreted in many ways, with interpretations reinforced by linguistic analysis, literary textual probing, authoritative statements by eminent rabbinic scholars to name but a few of the hermeneutic techniques. However, the meaning and relevance of Aaron’s silence in response to the loss of a loved one – in this case, two – is but one part of the inquiry. The other and perhaps more important part is the assessment of the appropriateness of silence by a mourner and to a mourner. While I regard all the above methods of analysis as important, I also refer to my own life experience to get some insight into the appropriateness of silence as a response to death.

About sixty years ago, my mother’s oldest sibling, my Uncle Irv, died of cancer. He was a relatively young man, still in his forties. I used to spend almost every weekend sleeping over at his family’s house on Rostrevor Rd. in Toronto just south of Eglington Ave. W. and just two blocks west of Bathurst St. I babysat his three children, then four when my cousins’ youngest sister was born. Sometimes on Sundays, my uncle would take me to the toy factory that he managed to help him or to just give me some rejected toys from the assembly line.

At other times, I would go with him to pick up my Uncle Jack who was blind and crippled and had been institutionalized his whole life; Jack would have a reprieve from the “hospital” where he lived and spend the day at my uncle and aunt’s house. At still other times, Uncle Irv would take me to the food terminal where he would buy cases of fruit and other produce and send me home with some to share with my mother. I regarded him as a surrogate father as my own father had left our home. On Sunday mornings at breakfast, my aunt and uncle would tell me about the play they had seen, the concert they had heard or the movie they had watched the evening before. For me, they were a romantic couple.

When my uncle died, I was devastated. I attended his shiva. Rabbi David Monson, who only died about ten years ago, had given the eulogy at Beth Shalom Synagogue of which he was the founding rabbi. He had been a chaplain in the army during the war. I had wished his talk had been more personal since he was famous for knowing his congregants’ intimate lives. His sermon had certainly been filled with adjectives of praise. Monson was highly regarded as a pulpit orator and the family generally heaped praise upon him. They thought he had a great heart.

When we returned to my aunt’s house for the shiva, for some reason, as I recall, I either did not seek out anyone or could not find anyone to speak about my feelings for my uncle in what was a large extended family gathering on both sides. In fact, this account is the first time I have written about my uncle’s death.

Rabbi Monson arrived. He began to talk to the men gathered after Kiddush and everyone was eating their food. I loved bagels, but I distinctly remember that I could not eat anything. Then, I overheard Rabbi Monson talking to some of the men about how he had scored on the stock market and was fishing for more tips from these businessmen.

I wanted to strangle him. I was burning with an inner rage that has never left me. It is not that Monson was scurrilous or said anything defamatory about my uncle. Quite the contrary. The rabbi clearly highly respected him. But I found his talking about making money at my uncle’s shiva, especially since he was a rabbi, scandalous, insulting and deeply offensive. I thought that he should have been silent or discussed another topic, something more relevant to the death of my uncle and the devastation to his wife and four children. I was very self-righteous and judgmental. I never took the time to see him and express my feelings.

I thought his silence would have been more appropriate than his loquaciousness. But I said nothing. I suffered in silence. It was the silence of resentment.

Resentment is destructive. It is the source of hatred. Monson’s words rankled in me for years and I generalized to a suspicion of most rabbis. The mixture of bitterness and rage, disappointment and high and mighty moral judgement as well as disappointment and deep disgust infected my young life and could be correlated with my suspicion of individuals who occupied any high and respected office.  The silence of resentment is itself a cancer.

But there is also a silence of confusion. About twenty years later, my own father died. He was not old – only 62. There was no burial; he had donated his body to science. There was no shiva. My older and younger brother immediately after his death left for a canoe trip after my brother, then a doctor, at my father’s request, facilitated his death by cutting him off from the machines providing life support. I was left to arrange for the body to be transferred to the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. I could not stand the idea of medical students treating my father’s body the way I had treated the cadaver I worked on when I was a first-year medical student.

But why should I have cared? I had been estranged from my father for years. I had not seen him for four or five years before his death. The last time he had dropped in to visit my family and our four children, he, as usual, brought a dozen bagels and some cream cheese. It had been at least a year since his last visit. He really came to ask to borrow $350. He needed to repair his car. I informed him that this time I would loan him the money. He could have the funds, not just for a month that he requested as he solemnly promised to pay the monies back and with interest. I gave him up to three months to repay the loan. It would be interest free. But if he did not repay it within that time, I did not want to see him ever again.

I never did see him again. I did not visit him when he was in the hospital after suffering a heart attack and renal failure. It was not the longest time that I had not seen him. When I was twelve, I remember packing his bags with all his belongings when he dropped in to see us after an absence of three weeks. I put the suitcases on the porch. He had not brought my mother a cent. For the previous four to five years he was increasingly absent for extended periods. I was by then contributing more to the family from my casual work than he was.

The next time I saw him, I was in university. I was walking along Bloor St. on the south side just east of Brunswick Avenue. I passed a man that looked strikingly like my father. But my father had not been going bald. He had a full head of dark not grey hair and was generally regarded as a handsome man. But now he was paunchy. I ran back to check. I confronted him and said, “Dad.” He did not recognize me. I had been about five feet tall when I had last seen him. I was then 6’3”, a skinny tall beanpole.

He gave me his phone number and address. He was living in an apartment above a bar on Yonge St. I visited him once, but my older brother kept somewhat in touch. I tended to avoid him. When he came to look me up, ostensibly to see his grandchildren, it was always the same – a gift of bagels and a request for a loan, which I persistently refused, but this never deterred him from dropping by a year or so later to make the same request.

When he died, I had no reason to cry or mourn for my father. Yet, after I had made the arrangements for the transfer of his body, I walked the streets of Toronto until dawn. I was devastated, even more devastated than when my uncle died. And I could not fathom why. Only in retrospect do I know that I was triply mourning. I was mourning the death of my father, for however irresponsible he had been, he was still my father. Second, I was mourning for the father I never had. Third, I was mourning because I had no opportunity to mourn. There was no funeral. There was no burial. There was no shiva. But then I mourned with the solipsistic silence of confusion.

Less than ten years or so later, I greeted the death of a friend in his early forties once again in silence. It was not the silence of resentment. It was not the silence of inner turmoil and confusion. It was the silence of shock, frustration and anger at the injustice of life and death. David Berger was then a psychiatrist who had studied at the famous Menninger Clinic.

He had sat in the same row as I throughout high school with one seat separating us because another student named Gerry Bain, who also became a doctor, sat between us. We had been arranged to sit in alphabetical order. We belonged to the same Y basketball club, but he was a much better athlete. He was also a powerful swimmer. When we were in medical school together, he was a champion water polo player. He had also been brought up in a labour bundist (secular Jewish and social democratic) family and knew a lot about politics. He was also more brilliant that I was even though I earned higher marks in the grade thirteen province-wide exams.

I left medical school in my fourth year at university in second year meds. A year later, David followed my example and we would hang out reading books in Hart House. During the six weeks he was absent from classes, I convinced him to return. He had decided that he wanted to teach. I investigated and showed him that if he wanted to teach high school, he would have to go back and complete an Arts degree and then do a year of teacher training. If he went back to medical school, he could earn a degree in just another year and, as a doctor, would much more easily get any teaching job he wanted.

He returned to medical school, but had to do some catch up work in the summer. He passed with reasonable marks even though he had missed six weeks of classes and clinic experience. He would only practice for about twenty years when he died in the shower at the Y of a massive heart attack following his usual heavy regimen of swimming which he had always kept up.

The burial was in Mount Pleasant cemetery rather than in a Jewish one. His estranged wife, who was not Jewish, arranged the funeral. The speeches by friends and his son at the funeral were heartwarming. But there was a missing gravitas. The funeral procession ended up in disarray as most cars became detached and lost in the ride from the funeral parlour on Steeles Avenue to the cemetery seventeen kilometres away on Mount Pleasant Blvd. just north of St. Clair. When the stragglers arrived at the cemetery, they could not find the burial site, for Mt. Pleasant cemetery is huge. In any case, the burial was quickly over and observed by only a small group.

We went to his ex-wife’s apartment afterwards for tea and some sandwiches. There was no shiva. I do not even remember offering his sister or his ex-wife or especially his son my condolences. Perhaps I did, but I most remember my silent frustration with the inability to mourn with others who had shared in David Berger’s life.

Dealing with these and other deaths did not prepare me in any way for the death of my brother, Al, on 11 May 1999. He was fifteen months older than I. He was only 62 when he died. We had been in the same year of school since grade eight and sometimes in the same classroom. We had been in the newspaper delivery business together, shared the excitement of scalping tickets at football and hockey games and ran a very successful ribbon selling operation before professional and university football games. By the time I was sixteen, with our savings, we were finally able to buy my mother a house on Ranee Avenue.

I filled out his application for medical school, even though he wanted to be an engineer. I convinced him to sign. I wanted to be in the same university class together. But although we always remained very close, he took a very different path in financing his way through university. He became a sub-lieutenant in the Canadian naval reserves and the government paid his way through college.

When we were in the same clinical group in the hospital, it became obvious that he would be the far better doctor than I, even though I always had higher marks. I would try to arrive at a diagnosis strictly through logic and that left too many options. He would quickly arrive at one and, in every case, it would be proven to be correct. He went on to become a well-known cardiologist, one who introduced angioplasty as a technique for cleaning out arteries into Canadian medical practice. He always insisted that he was just a sophisticated plumber, but he was appropriately revered by his patients.

He was a researcher and professor as well. We actually collaborated on the publication of two scholarly papers on the logic of discovery published in two different philosophical journals on medicine. When I organized Operation Lifeline for the Indochinese refugees in 1979, Al organized a volunteer cohort of doctors to provide health services for the new arrivals to Toronto.

It was his research and his practice that ostensibly killed him. As we were later told, the machines that they were using in performing the angioplasties had not been replaced during the 1989-1994 deep recession in Canada. They were evidently leaking radiation. He, another doctor and a nurse who used those machines all died of blastoma, a fatal cancer that attacked precursor cells and usually mostly attacks children.

I had spent a month with him in Arizona where he had gone to participate in a medical trial to treat his condition. Needless to say, the treatment was an utter failure. His death was excruciatingly painful and prolonged as he gradually lost his mental faculties and then his physical ones. I think he must have been in a coma for 4-5 months before he died. His second wife kept him alive on a hospital bed in her converted dining room in Wychwood Park.

She would allow my mother to visit him occasionally, but I stopped going over. I found the situation too macabre. Al had four children with his first wife and none with his second. At the funeral service, his oldest son, now a law professor in Austin Texas and as sweet an individual as one could ever wish to meet, literally got on bended knee and begged Al’s second wife for permission to say a few words. She refused.

We had a separate shiva at our home. But I never confronted his second wife for the treatment of my mother, the insensitivity to my nephews and nieces and her exploitation of her dying husband. When he was very sick, she managed to have the will changed so that his children were cut out and she was the sole beneficiary.

That was truly, for me, the suffering of silence. Sometimes silence is appropriate following the death of a loved one. But my silences in their various forms still haunt me and I consider that in each case the silence was inappropriate. However, I suspect the noises that I might have made at the time would likely have been even more inappropriate.

The appropriateness of silence as a response to the death of a loved one depends on the context and the person. It is a case of situational ethics and etiquette. No generalization is adequate.

Some Responses to Suffering in Silence

 

 

Some Responses to Suffering in Silence

by

Howard Adelman

This is the third of four installments in a series of blogs dealing with “Appropriate Ways to Mourn” and, in particular, the role of silence as a response to the death of a loved one or to someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one. The first blog in the series, which used the title above, offered an introductory exegesis of the many ways Jewish thinkers dealt with the depiction in Leviticus (10:1-3) of the High Priest Aaron’s loss of his two eldest sons at the hands of God when they failed to fulfill the ritual of a specific sacrifice in the exact manner instructed by God.

The second blog in the series was called, “The Silence of Smell” and it dealt with the ways in which silence was and remains an appropriate and/or inappropriate way to respond to mass atrocities, specifically to the Holocaust, for last evening, the memorial to those who were lost or responded with heroism to that specific genocide commenced. Today, Yom HaShoah ends. And it was the immanence of that day of remembrance that gave rise to the selection of the three verses of Leviticus for our Torah study group. However, as I wrote, the almost unanimous response of the members of that group was not about the response to a catastrophic collective loss, but the role of silence in response to personal loss or to a mourner who lost a loved one. The latter is the topic for today.

In response to the first blog, a reader wrote:

I’m struck by the “held his peace” phrase (assuming that is a reasonably adequate translation of the Hebrew which is beyond me to tell)…the phrase is equated with “held his tongue” in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. To my mind, it implies internal conflict and the need to restrain a verbal outburst against an outrageous power play by God. Not inner bliss and not deadness, but a shrewd political reckoning that, in the face of overwhelming abusive power, one best bide one’s time until it is safe to mourn expressively.

I agree to some degree. The rabbis who explain the silence as the correct response of an obedient servant of God in various ways are often apologists for an outrageous action. Those who see the response as a reflection of a soul that has died offer a window of light. Those who justify Aaron’s response as a way of expressing outrage at what just happened come closer, but the moral categories are inadequate. I am convinced that Aaron was conflicted, as my reader wrote, but the matter is more complicated than suggested. The need to restrain a verbal outburst against an outrageous power play by God as a pragmatic response to an overwhelmingly powerful figure – hold your tongue and bide your time – is certainly one possible way of assessing Aaron’s response. In the face of overwhelming abusive power, silence can be a way to “best bide one’s time until it is safe to mourn expressively.”

However, I think the matter is more complicated. Aaron’s silence not only likely reflected his own conflicted response to God’s outrageous and utterly disproportionate response, but it was likely a sign of a deeper and inner conflict between his utter trust in God and his inner emotional rage. It was not simply a practical and tactical move. Aaron was struck silent. He did not know how to respond otherwise. This was reinforced when his younger brother, Moses, the leader of the Jewish people who had led the Israelites into the wilderness of Sinai in the escape from Egypt, reminded him that the only response to God that was appropriate was sanctification and glorification. Moses was endorsing God as a super Kim Jong-un. “Suffer in silence,” was Moses’ message. Hence, the possible account for Aaron’s outward silence indicating his inner rage in contention with his faith in both God and his brother’s leadership.

Silence did not represent simply a tactical retreat nor the limits of language in response to a terrible catastrophe. More importantly, the issue was not the “appropriate” way to respond to a great personal loss.

Another reader wrote, “I think there is none. This I say, fully aware of the fact that there are countless rituals, traditions, and general societal and cultural expectations as to how to mourn ‘appropriately.’ But these again, are the expectations of others, rather than what honestly works or does not work for a given individual in such a vulnerable situation. If a mourning individual finds true solace in going through the prescribed steps, then they should of course do so: it may help avoiding the raw and painful feelings to focus instead on the proper behavior (somewhat akin to switching to automatic gear – not having to focus on the feeling of loss).”

The reader went on: “if someone can cope better by letting his/her pain/denial/anger/shock free reign (or alternatively, remain silent about it) and does not do the ‘proper’ things, that is also OK and a truly compassionate environment should not judge them for not going through the ‘correct’ steps.  Loss is an absolutely private emotion and not a show for the dearly gathered. One should be able to react to it as one truly, authentically feels like.  Having to pretend certain behaviors that one cannot identify with just to please an audience is phony, and during such extremely stressful times one should not be burdened with added expectations re: proper etiquette.”

Though I agree fully that the issue posed at the beginning of the study session – whether silence was the ‘appropriate’ response to what befell Aaron – was misleading in clearly implying that one can “legislate” or “prescribe” a general ethical, normative or even rule of etiquette as a response of a mourner or a sympathizer with a mourner, the problems I found with this reaction are as follows:

  • The discussion of whether a response is appropriate or inappropriate is not just a matter of imposing social expectations on a mourner;
  • Further, mourning is not just a private matter, but an expression of social values and priorities so that the criterion of a utilitarian calculus of whether silence “works” for the individual is inadequate; the category of utility is itself a contemporary dominant trope, for assessing any action; there is no more an absolute atemporal assessment of what honestly works than there is a moral assessment in terms of a divine imperative;
  • Prescribed rituals in dealing with death are not just convenient or useful tools to allow an individual to find true solace, for that just begs the question of what true solace is; if the steps help you in the mourning process, use them; if not, discard them. This individualistic utilitarian calculus is as much a moral imposition as whether an activity pleases God or fails to do so.

The first reader I cited offered a psychological explanation of Aaron’s silence as an appropriate and calculated response to a threatening and oppressive situation. The second reader cited reversed priorities and offered individual utility as a measure to determine what is psychologically appropriate and, thereby, dismissed the relevance of social guidelines other than as helpful personal hints. People ought to be allowed to do their own thing, respond to death in the way they “feel” best. On the other hand, my second reader opened the door to allow for the introduction though not imposition of social norms. “There is a fine and fragile balance between feeling free as an individual and being considerate to the feelings of others. This must be a two-way street, rather than an individual completely dissolving his/her own face, needs, and reactions and fully merge with the community.” However, in the end, the criterion remained individual utility.

A third reader eschewed any attempt to offer a universal guideline to what is or is not appropriate while finding some utility in Jewish ritualistic practices, even though he is not Jewish. “A good friend of mine is losing his battle with cancer.  He is dying but he is not dead.  I am supposed to be light and constructively positive during his dying time but, instead, I am grieving. I am sad and angry at what feels like injustice. Because he is still alive, I do not cry.  When he dies, I can openly mourn and show grief but, as a modern white male, I am unlikely to cry even then.  As a modern white male without traditions or real culture, I will simply carry on. No shiva. No candles. No prayers-in-groups. I may say a few words at his funeral and then eat some bad food that he posthumously pays for. It’s not right. I know that. But I have attended every kind of death ritual and none of them seem right. Judaism seems closest, but still not right. Maybe not feeling right is the right feeling?”

This is a backhanded way of endorsing silence as an appropriate normative response, but with even more disquiet than my first responder offered as an explanation for Aaron’s plight. Tomorrow, in my final installment in this series on silence as a response to catastrophic death of a loved one, I will write on, “My Silences in Response to Personal Loss.” It will carry forth the general theme that also embraced many of those in my Torah study group of rejecting even the search of a normative guide to defining appropriate behaviour to personal loss. It will also suggest the implication of all three selected responders cited above – and others, for discussions of appropriate ways of dealing with death seems to stir up a cauldron of feelings and responses – that the assessment of the appropriateness of a response depends first and foremost on understanding the person who died, the person mourning and the context. A search for general guidelines for appropriateness is a chimera.

However, a search for defining guidelines that determine which reactions are socially inappropriate and personally inadequate is not a quixotic effort. It is an exercise in knowing oneself and attempting to understand one’s society. Whether one deals with chivalry as an appropriate or inappropriate response to challenges one encounters or with silence in response to death of a loved one, the examination is critical in understanding oneself, comprehending one’s society and, thereby, defining when and why silence is inadequate and inappropriate while leaving open the question of what behaviour is appropriate or adequate.

One final word. The responses to the first installment of this series, and the original discussion that gave rise to it, indicate how close and important the issue of mourning is to everyone. Silence is one such response. In tomorrow’s blog, I will explore why I found silence to be both personally inadequate and socially inappropriate to personal loss.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Silence of Smell

The Silence of Smell

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday I began to probe the question about an appropriate or the appropriate way to deal with the loss of a loved one or with a mourner who suffered such a loss. In particular, I was concerned with silence as a response, a focus stimulated by my Torah study group that zeroed in on Aaron’s silence in the face of God’s murder of his two eldest sons for their error in using incense and lighting the fire in the holy of holies. Though the link to this passage was provided by Yom HaShoah, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance that begins this evening, almost everyone in that study session focused on the issue of individual responses to death rather than to a historic and unprecedented community loss.

Perhaps that is because the answer is simple in the latter case. A common trope in Holocaust literature is the inability of language or any individual emotional response to deal with the enormity and incomparibility of the disaster. In the face of the Holocaust, silence may possibly be the only appropriate response. This is true to Jewish religious tradition. In Lamentations 2:13, in the face of the destruction of the Temple, the Israelite asks, “what can I liken you, oh fair Jerusalem? What can I match with you to console you, oh fair maiden of Zion?” When disaster is overwhelming, when there is no pain like it, no response, not even silence, seems appropriate.

However, in reality, silence may not simply be inadequate. It may be wrong. It may be an inappropriate response. To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 27th of January, Donald Trump issued a statement that did not mention the Jewish people. Admittedly, this is not exactly comparable, for it is the response of a sympathizer rather than the mourner. Further, it was not as if the White House remained silent. It issued a response that simply omitted any mention of Jews. It then doubled down on its error by attempting to explain in terms of an effort at inclusiveness for there were many other victims of the Nazi murder machine than Jews – Roma, homosexuals, liberals, trade union leaders, the victims of the Nazi euthanasia program of the disabled. The collective furor from the Jewish community, however, was understandable.

But they might have been thankful for small favours. Trump did not engage in an even more inappropriate response by shifting the focus to America’s sacrifices in the conquest of Nazi Germany. If silence becomes an excuse for ignoring the specificity of suffering, recollecting one’s countries positive efforts is surely an inappropriate response.

Contrary to my belief that Donald Trump never seems to learn from his daily errors, this time the White House responded very differently to Yom HaShoah. Trump sent out a video tape in which he said the following:

“On Yom HaShoah we look back at the darkest chapter of human history. We mourn, we remember, we pray, and we pledge: Never again. I say it, never again. The mind cannot fathom the pain, the horror and the loss. Six million Jews, two-thirds of the Jews in Europe, murdered by the Nazi genocide. They were murdered by an evil that words cannot describe and that the human heart cannot bear. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, we tell the stories of the fathers, mothers and children, whose lives were extinguished and whose love was torn from this earth. We also tell the stories of courage in the face of death, humanity in the face of barbarity, and the unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people.”

While the sentiments expressed were now appropriate, Trump still erred, this time by commission rather than omission, by going on to repeat another myth, one most frequently perpetrated by Jews themselves. The birth of Israel was a response to the Holocaust and testimony to Jewish perseverance. The latter may be true, but Israel would have come into existence without the Holocaust. There is no evidence that the passage of the UN motion on partition took place because of worldwide guilt over the Holocaust. Silence in the face of the Holocaust was the usual response at the time and is now generally perceived as “inappropriate.”

Further, an outpouring of grief is the usual response of young people when they come face to face with the Holocaust. In response to yesterday’s blog, a reader described a documentary I have never seen about Israeli youth visiting the crematoria and internment camps in Poland. Each young person is given the name of a specific victim and asked to research their lives, their history. The effort is painful. The youth do the work and cry and wail. They are not silent.

What a contrast with the depiction of visitors by Alex Cocotas in his article in Tablet entitled, “BLOW UP THE MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED JEWS OF EUROPE.” The memorial is located in Berlin’s central government district near the Brandenburg Gate. If a visitor is not cavorting among the 2,711 stelae, he or she is bewildered and struck silent, not by the enormity of the deed, but by the disorientation of the maze that results. Quiet contemplation, as he has observed, is rare. Play and selfie photos are the norm. As he writes, “It is, for them, an Event, spreading from Instagram to Instagram, an item on the itinerary, somewhere between currywurst and the East Side Gallery, tethered to intention by a geotag.”

I have had only one very direct experience in encountering the mass deaths of victims of a genocide. In my study with Astri Suhrke of the role of bystanders in the genocide of 800,000 to one million Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, we visited the disinterred bodies of a mass grave that held over 16,000 victims. The skeletons of children, of women with rods thrust up their vaginas, of body after body laid out on the school benches in each of the classrooms at the technical school where they were killed, was overwhelming. We were all struck dumb, but not exactly silent. We had to talk because our visit had a functional component – confirming the accuracy of the figures of the total number of victims. We counted and compared counts.

The bodies had been disinterred only weeks before. The mass grave had been so packed, that there was very little decomposition of the flesh. It hung on the skeletons like the rags left of their clothes. If the picture never leaves me of that scene, the most powerful experience was the horrific smell. I need only mention the incident and the smell comes back as if I was still there. The immediacy of the confrontation with mass death comes primarily from my nostrils, not my voice. My mind goes into overdrive, racing from one portrait to another, one reflection to another.

Nothing is as evocative as the sense of smell, more so even than any picture. Auditory and visual records, words formed to convey experiences – none of these seems to compete with smell. Therefore, I entitled this blog the Silence of Smell. I could have called it the Smell of Suffering but that would have ignored my major theme – the appropriateness or inappropriateness to giving voice to the suffering of others and one’s own suffering at the memory. At that time, giving voice was not the issue. Olfactory nausea and unfathomable emotional disturbance was the order of the day and was the source of the most recurring and disturbing memories.

We know our sense of smell is located in the centre of the brain. So perhaps smell, rather than debates over giving voice to the enormity of the crime, may be a more appropriate way of memorializing mass murder and death. After all, smell is central to many happy memories as well. That is how I best remember my children when they were infants. I can still smell the sweet scent of their poop and fragrance of the powder applied to prevent any rash from forming.

There may be another reason for stressing the silence of smell as a route to memorializing. Scent is associated with nostrils. And nostrils are associated with being nosy, with sticking your nose into affairs ostensibly not of your making or your concern. When it comes to genocide, the dictum of minding your own business, of remaining silent, is inappropriate. And the issue is not simply that you could have been the victim, that we ought to engage in humanitarian intervention because of our shared humanity. An abstract common identification as humans has not proven to be very effective in motivating risk and involvement.

In any case, the identification is a false one. I live a life of privilege in a land that not only guarantees freedom, but delivers on the promise, in a land that not only ensures my well-being, but goes a long way to delivering on that promise as well. But not all the way. Not for everyone. And if the promise proved false for me, it is possible that I might focus my attention exclusively on my and my family’s deprivation rather than the general deprivation of others.

But perhaps that is not the purpose of silence, not the purpose of the silence of smell or the smell of suffering. The issue is really not my identification with the victim. The issue is not whether, but for the grace of God, that could have been me. As I counted bodies disinterred from that mass grave dug three weeks before Juvénal Habyarimana was killed and three weeks before the Rwanda genocide began, the issue was not my identification with those killed, but with those who perpetrated the crime. But most of all with those who abetted the crime by their silence, by their indifference.

The victims of the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide and the Armenian genocide and all the other enormous crimes against particular peoples, were victims because they were not responsible for taking their fate into their own hands. The genocide was perpetrated because that responsibility was removed from their hands. If we identify with that victimhood, we identify with our incapacity in some circumstances to take action when we need to be reminded that we are in a position of responsibility to intervene.

Further, it is almost impossible for us who live in privileged circumstances and enjoy the responsibility of guiding the course of our own lives to identify with victims who were denied that privilege. And if we had been so denied, at the time our response might just as likely have been the responsibility to protect ourselves, not other victims of the crime of cancelling that responsibility. Identification with victimhood has a tendency to inculcate either self-pity or passivity and not our sense of responsibility. The task of memorializing and of mourning is to remember, not that we or those who died were ineffectual and passive victims of the laws of nature or the realism of international political affairs, but that they lived lives of wonder and discovery and to discover how and why we betrayed them. For ordinary people allow the perpetuation of such atrocities by the few.

I was and remain a citizen of one such country that failed in its responsibility – not the main one, for General Roméo Dallaire somewhat redeemed a streak of Canadian honour. Canada did not live up to the responsibility to protect. The issue was not identification with the victim or identification with victimhood, but identification with perpetrators. In that, there can be and should not be any silence as the silence of smell always reminds me. The smell of mass death is universal. But memory must bring to life those who lived and became victims, individuals who had parents and children or were children themselves. Yom HaShoah for me is both the silent smell of mass murder and the need to talk about the personal lives of those who lived and died.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Appropriate Ways to Mourn

Appropriate Ways to Mourn

by

Howard Adelman

From now on, when I want to go on a real holiday and escape my regular routine, I will take my laptop with me, as I always do, but take the wrong cord so that I cannot recharge the laptop. That way, I do not feel guilty because I intended to work, but do not work because I cannot – or so I tell myself. Leisure without guilt is heavenly bliss. This was my most important delusionary discovery of my trip to Ithaca, New York; Boston, Mass.; Princeton, New Jersey; and Savannah, Georgia from which I returned on Friday.

I had planned to write blogs about the trip, and still may. But I did not. After all, I told myself, I could not. Of course, I could have purchased a new cord on the trip or bought one of those new recharging devices that I had read about. But I did not. I was content to enjoy myself without feeling guilty, comforted by the convenient lie that I had made a mistake – not my fault – and, therefore, I could just enjoy the trip without indulging in my personal obsession of writing about it.

As everyone knows, when you go on a trip, no matter how excellent the experience, the greatest reward is often the return. “Home is where the heart is,” and all those clichés. I returned in time to attend Torah study yesterday morning. I was surprised at how much I missed it. As it happened, yesterday’s study of Torah was the most contentious and the most emotionally arousing of any I had ever attended – not only for me, but for many of the participants.

This evening, Yom HaShoah begins – the day for remembering and mourning the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. That was the ostensible reason for focusing on the small section of the Torah that was chosen for study. More formally, the day of remembering and mourning is called: Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה; “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”).

But I, and I suspect many other Jews, tend to forget it is about remembering heroism and not just the huge number of tragic deaths. Further, I remember my deliberate or insensitive obliviousness to the Holocaust altogether when I was a callow youth. Not so young that I should not beat my breast for my ignorance. I was then married with one child and was in graduate school studying philosophy. I also was a tenant of a house at 586 Spadina Avenue that I had rented from a Holocaust survivor who had moved to Montreal. He had told me about The Black Book he had compiled and self-published on the murder of Hungarian Jews in the last year of the war.  He not only could not sell the copies, but he could not even give them away. They were piled up in boxes in the basement. He asked modestly that if I had a chance, I should find places and people to give the book.

I went down the basement and retrieved one copy. It sat on my shelf for a year. I never even cracked the binding to skim it. Yet I remained convinced after reading Hannah Arendt that Jews had not resisted and had been complicit in their own death. When I had a chance to check directly with a survivor and with his account to confirm or falsify Arendt’s account, I failed to do so. In my many moves, I even lost track of the copy of The Black Book that I had. On Yom HaShoah, I remember not only the Holocaust, but my own ignorance and indifference to the resistance of the Jews. I remember my silence.

I mourn my mindblindness. I did not know that the date of remembrance originally chosen was the 14th of Nisan to commemorate the Warsaw ghetto uprising and would only learn of this when I and my family visited the Warsaw Ghetto Museum on a kibbutz in Israel a dozen years later and two decades after the holy day had been declared. However, the day originally chosen fell immediately before Passover, so the final date for the holy day was almost two weeks later, the 27th of Nisan, eight days before Israel Independence Day. Tomorrow, I will attend a memorial service.

However, other than Aaron’s silence, it is difficult to make a connection between the passage of Torah chosen for study and Holocaust Remembrance Day. The focus of discussion was virtually entirely about mourning personal loss and the appropriate way to do so and not about a horrendous collective loss. The passage goes as follows:

Leviticus Chapter 10 וַיִּקְרָא

א  וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. 1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
ב  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
ג  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן. 3 Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.

God just killed the two eldest sons of Aaron, the High Priest, and Aaron stood in silence:וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן.

Moses, instead of wailing at the death of his two nephews and instead of commiserating with Aaron at his terrible loss, merely used the occasion to reprimand Aaron and remind him that the way God reveals his holiness (and his power) is by insisting that people, and, more precisely, the priests, do exactly what God tells them. God’s instructions were to be followed to a “T”.  Neither Aaron nor Moses remonstrated God for His utterly disproportionate response to the failure of Nadab and Abihu to follow God’s precise instructions. The two had sinned for using incense in the fire pans to start the fire. God insisted that He and He alone would light the sacrificial fire. Further, only the incense from the sacred bronze altar was to be utilized. They had offered before the Lord alien fire. They had sinned for not following God’s protocol. God smote Nadab and Abihu. Moses chastised Aaron. Aaron stood in silence.

It gets worse. Moses ordered that the two be buried outside the camp. Eleazar and Ithamar took the places of their two older brothers. Moses told them and their father, Aaron, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community.” (Leviticus 10:6) When the sister of Aaron and Moses – Miriam – died (Numbers 20:1), there is no account of mourning as there was when Sarah, Abraham’s wife, died (Genesis 23:2) or when Aaron himself subsequently died as reported in the same Parsha Chukas that recorded Miriam’s death. Abraham wailed at Sarah’s death. The whole Israelite community wailed at the death of Aaron. The Torah records Miriam’s death with silence.

But, at least, there was no prohibition against mourning and warnings of dire consequences if one did not follow God’s instructions. Mourn not. Bewail the alien fire not the death of Aaron’s two sons. Failure to do so would have stark consequences, not only for the leaders of the Israelites, but for the entire community. Was the silence “appropriate”?

Rashi said it was. In fact, God rewarded Aaron for his silence by subsequently addressing him and not Moses to pass on the commandment not to engage in sacrifices if drunk. The implication is that Nadab and Abihu were drunk when they employed the “alien fire.”

On the other hand, in contrast to Rashi, Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437-1508) condemned Aaron’s callousness. Aaron’s heart had turned to stone when he did not weep or mourn as a grieving father usually does. Because he had lost his soul, he was speechless. Was silence a sign of deadness, of a loss of soul, or did the silence connote “inner peace and calm”? (R. Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein)? Was the silence and forbearance a sign of Aaron’s holiness because he refused to chastise God for his own personal great loss?

Was Aaron shocked into silence or did he retreat into an inner blissful state of being? Baruch Levine argues that Aaron both mourned and did so in silence. He was not in shock forיִּדֹּם  means to moan and mourn, as well as to do so in silence. Aaron mourned inwardly while the community wailed outwardly lest Aaron as high priest be defiled by participating in the normal way in a grieving session. In Braakhot 6b, Rab Pappa went further and insisted that maintaining silence in a house of mourning is precisely the appropriate response. In Job 2:13, silence is perceived as the proper and respectful response to horrendous grief. Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite “sat down with him (Job) upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word unto him; for they saw that his grief was very great.” (Job 2:13) Rab Yohanan (Moed Katan 28b) taught that “comforters are not permitted to say a word until the mourners open a conversation.”

Is silence the appropriate response to horrendous loss? What is appropriate for a mourner to do who suffers a great loss? What is the appropriate sentiment of a friend or a relative to be expressed to one who suffers such a great loss? Is silence the right thing to do? I have my own experiences to guide me.

Jack Charles v the Crown: a theatre review

Jack Charles v the Crown: a theatre review

by

Howard Adelman

Currently, a series of Australian plays is being performed at the Berkeley Theatre by Canadian Stage called, “Spotlight Australia.” We saw the first in that series entitled “Jack Charles v the Crown.” It is rare, for it is an autobiographical play with Jack Charles as the sole performer and co-writer (the other co-writer is John Romeril). The play is directed by Rachael Maza who, in real life, is Jack’s niece. She grew up in the shadow of this talented Australian actor and performer. [Jack along with Rachael’s father established Australia’s first Aboriginal Theatre Company in Melbourne in 1972.] Rachael was the director of that marvellous Australian film, Rabbit Proof Fence. Jack Charles is an older aboriginal Australian who hails from Boon Wurrung, the territory in East Victoria stretching from the Werribee River to Wilson Promontory. The Boon Wurrung people make up one of the five Kulin nations.

“Nation,” not tribe, as I shall elaborate in a future blog, is the proper term for that people. As the governments and civil society entities of Western settler states came to realize and finally acknowledge, those states have been constructed on land once owned and governed by aboriginal peoples. At Massey College, where I am currently a Senior Fellow, events open with a tribute paid to the aboriginal people on whose lands Massey College was built. This ritual is becoming widespread. For example, after students stand for “O Canada” in Etobicoke schools in Toronto, a statement is read as follows:

“In keeping with Indigenous protocol, I would like to acknowledge this school is situated upon traditional territories. The territories include the Wendat, Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations, and the Métis Nation.”

“The treaty was signed for the particular parcel of land that is collectively referred to as The First Purchase and applies to lands west of Brown’s Line to Burlington Bay and north to Eglinton Avenue.

“I also recognize the enduring presence of Aboriginal Peoples on this land.”

I first encountered this ritual in New Zealand. There, for example, at Massey University (35,000 students) in Palmerston in North New Zealand, the university is even given a Māori name, Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa. For years, all events have been introduced with a tribute to the Māori people, the previous owners of the land on which the university was built. The ritual is now becoming more widespread in Canada. I will have more to say about this ritual in tomorrow’s blog, but suffice it for now to state simply that ritual is not about any action that changes the world, but about acknowledging and recognizing the world we live in and offering a path to negotiate our existence in the world through a process of creating community. Rituals establish a shared community.

The play at the Berkeley Theatre also opened with such a tribute, the same one that is read at the opening of events at Massey College in Toronto.  In this case, the relevance cannot be missed. For the drama is a story told by an older victim of state-sponsored political abuse of aboriginal peoples. In this case, Jack Charles was snatched from his parents at the age of only three months to be “civilized” as an Australian in a residential school.

The results were otherwise. Jack was sexually and physically abused and the results of his isolation from his family and the abuse to which he was subjected wreaked havoc on his life. This part of his life is told as backdrop drawn from his documentary, Bastardy, in which pictures of his heroin habit and self-injection as an addict (toy-yon – it) and voiceovers of his criminal record of thieving (nyeelam-but pinbullally – bul) taken from court records are read as the court documents are projected onto the screen. Jack spent years in prison, (Baambuth – al), one time serving a five year stretch. Though that is the backstory, it is not what the play is primarily about.

Jack is a talented actor (djilak-djirri – dha Jack) and singer (yinga-dha koolin Jack) and the performance is accompanied by a three-piece trio as backup to Jack when he sings and plays his guitar. There is also a potter’s wheel on stage. For a good part of the drama, Jack is sitting at the potter’s wheel molding clay bowls (marnang-bul Jack) as he tells his story to the audience. Clay and its molding are openly symbolic as well as true to his life, for Jack taught pottery when he was in prison. And the play is about clay and how we are molded like clay by social institutions and our own will to survive and thrive. The play is primarily about Jack as a proud Kulin man (dullally koolin) ready not only to tell his story, but to confront the criminals who abused and jailed him.

This is done with such humour and irony that the juxtaposition of the entertainment and the horrific nature of the tale make the autobiographical account all the more powerful as Jack sings and tells his life story (dhumba – dha ba yinga-dha weegan-dha Jack). The play, if it is a play, for it is as much performance as a drama put on stage, reaches what I would characterize as its climax when Jack stands confronting his judges and asks, not for his redemption from his crimes and misdemeanours, but for the redemption of the people who did what they did to a young aboriginal child. This is all done in a speech that is without bitterness, a speech that in fact has all the formality and politeness of the culture of English courts, but said with both irony and playfulness, “warm of heart” and “sharp of wit” as Rachael notes in her catalogue notes.

Jack owns up to the fact that he was a heroin addict and a thief to service his addiction and is willing to take responsibility for the crimes he committed. He stole jewels and money. He is fully aware that, through his acts, he created a sense of intrusion among his victims. But the white system of laws and government stole much more people and lives. Our state trafficked in cultural genocide. Jack asks the judges whether they are willing to acknowledge and account for their sins. In the process, he compares black and white systems of justice.

When an aboriginal in his own community commits an offence, he is either banished from his people for a specific time or metaphorically wounded in the heel by a spear. But then, after being punished, he returns to the community with his dignity intact as a full-fledged member of the nation. In contrast, in white justice, the person is given a record that follows him for the rest of his life and affects whether he can be employed. In America, as documented in 13th, a person convicted is deprived of his right to vote as a citizen. Further, as Jack wryly notes, when he was about to travel to Britain to receive an award, the British immigration department, five days before he was scheduled to depart, turned his request for a visa down because he had a criminal record.

As Jack “tickles” the consciences and consciousness of the members of the audience, and avoids self-righteous ranting and berating, the very performance becomes an act of redemption so appropriate for the Passover/Easter period. The result is not only the strengthening of the aboriginal community, but through empathy, strengthening the community of aboriginal and non-aboriginal community members as well as “the ties that bind” all of humanity as the play is given a world audience.

It is hard to convey how powerful the play is with a total absence of self-pity. Self-pity is the dark side of sincerity and this drama avoids that pitfall totally. Instead of self-righteousness, the drama offers a source for us to reflect upon and determine how we ought to act as Jack asks the judges, not so much to pardon and set aside his sentences, but to acknowledge their own part in a criminal activity and to themselves seek redemption.

The play is more than a dramatization of a personal life, for it is a parable about the backs upon which modernity was developed and the absences from cognition, from acknowledgement, from recognition, to the presence of ever larger senses of community which at the apex recognize that we are all part of the same humanity. This is not simply a story about extreme abuse and suffering, but it tells a story about the costs of modernity that both stresses and facilitates redemption.

How appropriate to stress the performative, not as a sound bite or a thoughtless tweet, but as a repetitive act each evening to allow us all to become batter and part of a much-improved world more conscious of our common humanity. For our aboriginal peoples may have been among the groups most negatively affected by the process of modernity, but to a lesser degree victimization goes much further. We have transformed our world into a hyper-technical system without any grounding in redemption. Entertainment and performance have, in good part, become part of a system for abusing respect for sincerity, for truth and for others. Sea levels may be rising but see-levels have been declining precipitously. The liberal imagination may have delivered us a powerful foundation for individual freedom, but it has also come at a great cost that has left individuals increasingly isolated without sovereignty over themselves and the ability to determine their own destinies. Humans around the world, increasingly left to fend for themselves, provide a terrific opportunity for slippery soap salesmen to sell a fraudulent bill of political goods.

Thus, although Jack committed crimes, he was the greatest victim by far of his felonies, even as he openly acknowledged the discomfort, the sense of personal invasion, that robbery and theft of personal belongings instill. Though Jack’s survival never seemed to be in danger, his sanity was. Nothing came easy. He suffered from PTSD in the worst way. One song he performed was “No Son of Mine” that begins:

Well the key to my survival
was never in much doubt
the question was how I could keep sane
trying to find a way out.

Things were never easy for me
peace of mind was hard to find
and I needed a place where I could hide
somewhere I could call mine

I didn’t think much about it
til it started happening all the time
soon I was living with the fear everyday
of what might happen that night.

Though he once hid in booze and heroin, the play ends with a degree of recognition about society. Jack Charles sings, “Love Letters in the Sand.”

On a day like today
We passed the time away
Writing love letters in the sand

How you laughed when I cried
Each time I saw the tide
Take our love letters from the sand

Chorus
You made a vow that you would ever be true
But somehow that vow meant nothing to you

Now my broken heart aches
With every wave that breaks
Over love letters in the sand

Now my broken heart aches
With every wave that breaks
Over love letters in the sand.

Jack Charles lived a life of promises that had as much sincerity, depth and permanence as letters written in the sand. He grew up with a broken heart and a shattered soul. Yet he redeemed himself through performance and theatre making it possible for us to be redeemed as well.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

A Framework for Comprehending Sovereignty

A Framework for Comprehending Sovereignty

by

Howard Adelman

As in a recipe for baking a layered cake, I begin with the ingredients. In a cake, the two main elements are usually, but not necessarily, flour and water. The two main elements in the case of sovereignty are state and nation. That does not mean that both are always present. When Louis XIV of France said, “L’État c’est moi,” France still consisted of a number of ethnic and linguistic groups, the Basques in the south, the descendants of the Ligures in the south-east, the Normans in the north descended from the Vikings, and the major group of Gauls and Belgae that were dominant in the territory that became France. There was no singular French nation at the time. But there was a state, and Louis XIV was the quintessential absolute monarch of that state.

While the nation was multiple, the state and the sovereign were one. That meant that the ability to raise taxes, to require the citizens of the French state to pay monies to the state, belonged to Louis XIV as the embodiment of the French state. This was the material dimension of sovereignty. At the same time, Louis insisted on a monopoly on coercive power within the territory of the state. As absolute ruler, any lords of the realm had to pledge their control and use of military power to Louis XIV’s purposes. This was the coercive dimension of sovereignty and the move towards the state having a monopoly on the use of coercive power. Finally, Louis XIV had absolute jurisdiction in making the laws of the land. Combining all three, Louis XIV controlled the exercise of three key elements of the state – material wealth, coercive power and legal authority.

Sometimes the state precedes the constitution of a nation. This was true in France. This was true in the United States. This was true in Canada. Some countries, such as Canada, never did forge a singular strong nationality, but a layered one in which all citizens could belong to the Canadian nation, but many could be Québécois, Ojibway, Cree or Inuit as well. Further, that sense of common identity developed and shifted over time. The bond formed was not primarily external and expressed through the formal and legal mechanism of citizenship, as in a state, but could be said to be intuitive characterized by informal bonds that tie together the members of a nation.

A nation has a national consciousness – a shared sense of group identity. That is its heart. A nation has a governing idea. In contemporary Canada, it may be the concept of a mosaic and a collective concern for the well-being of each of its members as manifested in one realm, a single payer system for guaranteeing health care. In the U.S., it may be a very different conception – a melting pot and a realm independent and separate from the power of the state, such as the idea of a frontier that is more about the personality of the nation than an actual territorial boundary. That is its heart.

In a nation, there are rules as well as ruling ideas, but those rooted not so much in formal authority as in a sense of authentic authority. In Canada, it may be the reputed civility, the politeness of Canadians. In America, it may be bluntness and the wide scope given to the expression of free speech so that Alan Dershowitz could insist that the American Civil Liberties Union intervene on behalf of Donald Trump against the charge of inciting violence at his rallies because, unless a direct connection between his words and the actions of the individuals committing the assault against a peaceful protester in the midst of the rally, can be established, the command to, “Get her out,” does not constitute incitement to violence unless the individuals committing the assault were paid agents of the Donald Trump campaign. In America, even though its extent is debated, the right of freedom of speech is much more broadly defined than in other political jurisdictions. Behind the constitution, this inchoate sense of the nation is often cited to justify legislation and interpretations of the formal legal system.

In addition to its heart and head, a nation is a source of empowerment through the exercise of its sense as a nation and its members’ identification with and service to that nation. These are the guts of a nation.

If a state consolidates its material foundation, its legal system and its ability to use coercive power over time, the process is directed towards making the unit more effective, more coherent and more unified. In the case of the nation, its dynamic, its changing qualities and characteristics, are much more on display and in play. The formation of a nation can almost always be said to be an activity in motion. When sufficient numbers share a singular identification to become a source of collective energy working for a common goal, a nation is formed that can be characterized by a unique energy source rooted in creative rather than coercive power.

State                                        Nation

Power                   Coercive                                     Creative

Authority               Formal or Legal                        Authentic

Influence               Material                                     Intellectual

While most states consolidate, their formation is independent of and usually precedes the formation of the nation that dominates within a state. This was not true of the ancient Hebrew nation-state or of the modern Dutch nation-state where the group developed a sense of itself as a nation before it constituted itself as a state. The Torah provides the narrative of the formation of the Israelite nation before there ever was a state. A nation is constituted by a set of reigning ideas that provide a profound intellectual influence on the spirit of a nation. The will of that nation becomes the source of authority for defining a nation, its historical purpose and the use of the spirit of a nation or its collective creative energy.

Opening Friday’s roundtable on sovereignty, Tom Axworthy cited Jean Bodin as his primary historical authority for defining sovereignty. Jean Bodin, a sixteenth century French jurist, philosopher and professor of law at Toulouse, was best known for his theory of sovereignty which defined sovereignty in terms of formal legal rule backed up by a monopoly on coercive power for governing a defined territory. What is less well known is that Bodin also wrote on the economy in a 1568 treatise, Réponse de J. Bodin aux paradoxes de M. de Malestroit in which he clarified that a state not only depended upon a legislated regime backed by coercive force, but a material foundation in which monetary policy (the amount of money in circulation) and the productivity of the regime were to be kept in some form of reasonable balance. Material wealth was not simply about the quantity of money – the increasing importation of silver and gold from South America at that time – but about the ability of the state to organize the production of goods and services consonant with the money supply.

However, in Bodin, the stress on these three dimensions of state sovereignty ignored the role of the sovereignty of the nation. Bodin provided a rationale for the consolidation of power, legislative authority and material wealth in a singular and dominant authority. Though Axworthy, in his presentation of a realist view of sovereignty, ignored the material dimension, his most significant omission was his obliviousness to the sovereignty of the nation and blindness to other ways in which the sovereignty of the state could be grasped.

Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon’s account stood in sharp contrast because she stressed the importance neither of military power nor the direction of material acquisition nor even of state legislated laws. International law set the foundation for recognizing the boundaries of a state in the north of Canada – in this case, the international law of the sea – backed up by scientific research that provided the intellectual substance for applying those norms. All this was part of the expression of the spirit of a nation even in a realm where there were no members requiring protection.

This is also why an international legal regime needs to be developed governing climate change based on extensive scientific research. Not for expanding our wealth, but for making the need to resort to coercive force obsolete and for ensuring human survival. Sara French-Rooke in her discussions of sovereignty when applied to northern peoples stressed the central place of personal security rather than state security, the emphasis again on survival rather than the accumulation of wealth ad infinitum.

This involved a very different conception of sovereignty, one rooted in a universal sovereign in which nations and states are simply trustees for a segment of territory on behalf of an eternal sovereign. The state and the nation may both come into existence in history, but behind and before that emergence there needed to be a magisterium universalis.

When there is an effort to make the universal sovereign the actual ruler, you then move towards an idealistic conception of sovereignty. For the ultimate authority, which would determine whether a state treated its citizens adequately, would be a source of universal governance. This was the intent of R2P. It was neither the intent nor the mechanism of the law of the sea, for the latter always depends on states opting into the process and, in the end, making the consent of the relevant states critical to the implementation of the universal norms.

There are clear implications of pushing one doctrine rather than another. In the realist or Bodin construction, policy would suggest that Canada needs a robust sea presence in terms of updated or new icebreakers reinforced by navy patrols and air surveillance to exercise its sovereignty. But Riddell-Nixon argued that neither coercion, the quest for material accumulation nor formal domestic legislation have been critical in determining the boundaries of sovereignty of Canada in the arctic region.

This framework also allows us to understand both shared and shattered sovereignty. In shared sovereignty, agents share formal authority and usually defend that shared authority by joint action of military forces. Revenues from resources may also be shared as between Sudan and South Sudan. Shared sovereignty may be between a domestic jurisdiction below the state level – such as a province – or there may be shared authority between a state and an external agent. Thus, Canada in matters of defence has largely surrendered its autonomous control of coercive power, at least where it concerns the defence of the North American continent, to the overwhelming might of America. When Canadians were debating over whether to have or get rid of nuclear-tipped Bomarc missiles in Sudbury in the Diefenbaker-Pearson era, this was a decoy. Americans had already deployed nuclear-armed missiles across the north of Canada, something few Canadians knew anything about at the time.

Sovereignty also shatters. It may be among Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq or repressed as in the case of Turkey dealing with its Kurdish minority or a source of rivalry as between the Dinka and Neuer in South Sudan. Kenya has yet to forge a fully unified nation from its dominant tribes. In the UK, the Scots are seeking independence and, in Northern Ireland, there is some degree of shared sovereignty between Ireland and Great Britain. Shared sovereignty over control of the old city of Jerusalem has been proposed to resolve a major impasse in the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Shared sovereignty is sometimes a positive response to the problem of a shattered state that stresses divisions rather than unity among the nations that make up a state.

Failed states usually result from the shattering of national identity, not simply because of its multiplicity. The tensions in America are deeply embedded in the mistreatment of America’s black population. I finally watched the marvellous documentary, 13th. The film is based on the thesis that the 13th amendment to the constitution passed to end slavery in the U.S., contained a loophole which allowed discrimination against blacks to be reinstated in new forms of legal coercion when the old forms became intolerable. The 13th amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The loophole is in italics.

When slavery ended, the legal system in the south was used to arrest blacks in large numbers for spurious or minor offences. Southern states used this new form of slavery to build public works through the labour of chain gangs. When that practice was disallowed, the South switched to the use of Jim Crow laws legislating separation of the races and raising the hurdle for exercising voting rights. When Jim Crow was ended with the civil rights movement, the coercive system of black subjugation, though far weaker, persisted and switched to using the law and coercive powers of the state to raise the prison population in the U.S. Even though a task force constituted by Nixon recommended addressing the root causes of drug abuse through therapy rather than incarceration, Nixon introduced a war on drugs knowing it was irrelevant to reducing the drug issue, but as a mechanism for winning the south vote by identifying blacks with drugs and winning support for his unpopular Vietnam War by libelling hippies as stoned potheads.

The war on drugs continued and was enhanced by each presidential regime, including Clinton’s, so that by the year 2014 the prison population had exploded from numbers in the range of 300,000 to numbers in excess of 2.4 million. 40% were blacks. Law and coercion were used to disenfranchise blacks by alleging a spurious massive voter fraud and raising barriers to access voting to both demonize blacks as cheaters as well as retain support among white voters indoctrinated to fear blacks as rapists. The point is that the coercive might of the state, its legislative powers and its material interests can combine to repress a part of the nation and define that part as Other. That effort may turn to Mexican illegal and legal migrants as well, including Hispanic children born in the U.S., who, like blacks of old, were demonized by Donald Trump as rapists and criminals even though the rate of convictions of Hispanics was lower than the rate for native-born white Americans.

There is a material motive to undertaking such efforts since, in the partnerships of government and private business, large numbers of private corporations now have a vested interest in the economics of incarceration and the profits that flow from production facilities in prisons.  Thus, material interest can be united with a state’s control over coercive power and its legislative authority to repress part of a nation to enhance the identity of another part and unite that part through inculcation of the fear of the Other.

A healthy nation-state tries to ensure that all its citizens can identify with a nation that will be treated equally by the state, whatever the sub-national grouping. However, the coercive powers of the state, its legislative powers and its objective of facilitating the acquisition of material wealth can be combined to throw stones at and eventually crack and even shatter the windshield of the state.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Canada, thankfully, is travelling a path in the opposite direction.