Political Communication in Canada

Political Communication in Canada

by

Howard Adelman

Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control [Brand] (Alex Marland) – continued:

Brand won the $50,000 2017 Canadian Donner Book Prize.

Any communications strategy will vary according to the material or information at hand, the approach to using that information, the media available for employing the data, and the logic and structures specifically correlated with that media. Thus, before we even do anything on a communications strategy, the content, approach, media available and its forms, must all be grasped. Taken together, the above will almost but not quite dictate the techniques available to be employed in a communications strategy, techniques which also must be identified, analyzed and understood. Once we understand the material and the media, our approach and techniques available, the utilization for its most efficacious impact must be assessed and then translated into strategies and tactics.

Our communications age is identifiable by a unique set of materials previously unavailable: mass data bases, public opinion research and market intelligence.  However, in politics only a small range of mass data is relevant. We have no use for mass spectral databases available through spectrometry that help astronomers identify planets which might support life. Nor are communication junkies interested in the mass collection of DNA material used to identify sources for organ transplants or to trace one’s ancestry. Nor, on a more human scale, and surprisingly, is there much interest in the mass data used to assess performance, a data base popularized in the baseball movie, Moneyball, which perhaps best made the pollster, Nathan Silver, a household name. In the field of electoral politics and governance, the focus is on human predispositions, preferences and priorities; the collection of mass data allows pollsters to mine this platinum.

It was rather surprising, then, when I could not find one reference to Nathan Silver in Brand or to Nathan’s own famous brand, Five Thirty Eight or 538. There are many discussions of public opinion research, the sampling of a cross section of the population to measure the public’s views of issues, policies, parties and leaders. However, if you look up the long list of references used, there is no citation of The Signal and the Noise, Silver’s account of the techniques he developed and used, including mathematical algorithms, to very accurately predict the outcome of the American election in 2012, an election that was purportedly too close to call.

To adumbrate, there is no discussion of mathematical modelling as a technique for more accurately assessing how preferences and priorities of voters can be assessed to interpret their voting preferences. Silver proved that opinion surveys and focus groups were inadequate. If you do not seek out certain types of data in the mass data bases, or even try to develop those much deeper data bases, if you do not employ the more sophisticated techniques of mathematical analysis, then you may not be able to comprehend how Stephen Harper attempted to manipulate the public. Marland’s nostalgic approach will not likely reveal the shortcomings and superficiality of both his and Harper’s approach and their inherent limitations as well questionable results.

The market research, the quantitative and qualitative data, can include, in addition to polls, opinion surveys and focus groups, a wider spectrum from role playing to census data analysis. However, if a political party simply maps its political program onto this market intelligence to prioritize issues, the results may be shallow and misdirected. One of the shortcomings of Marland’s book is his failure to adopt a much more critical model that could also help explain Harper’s failures.

I think there is an explanation for this shortcoming. Alex Marland, like Stephen Harper, was never really interested in the role data has played and continues to play in the daily lives of citizens that allow those citizens to better understand, grasp and operate in the world. He, like Harper, was preoccupied with advertising, with a market and sales orientation, that is with manipulating the public to buy a specific brand in a crowded field. Advertising, as Marland acknowledges, is the effort to influence the opinion, choices and behaviour of the voting public. It is not an effort to understand those choices and help guide them for purposes of self-realization. Hence, the focus on market intelligence and the willingness and determination to use that market intelligence for sales purposes to stimulate emotional reactions rather than an effort to understand and identify public anxieties.

Marland in his book clearly understands the difference between a sales and market orientation (see p. 33), but as much as he wants to have the latter supersede the former, as long as the concerns of citizens are tabulated within a market frame, that is, where mass data is used to sell one’s party as best able to address issues of concern, then the goal will simply be developing pain relief and then advertising why Aleve is better than Tylenol. There will be no real effort to understand the underlying sources of that pain and the various available ways to address that pain. Responding to pain (or desire) is not the same as understanding its roots.

For Marland, the message is the media – the mass and new social media available to engage in marketing a political party. Mass media refers to traditional forms, such as newspapers, magazines, radio and TV, whereas social media refers to the digital media and internet-based applications where users as much as professionals create the content, as in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Wikipedia. Marland subscribes to the Canadian school of communication analysis of Harold Innis, Donald Creighton and Marshall McLuhan who held that, “communications technology is more influential than its content.” (p. 51) Whether the issue was the fur trade, the St. Lawrence River (versus the Erie Canal) or modern mass print and then electronic followed by digital media, the nature of that media will shape not only how we communicate, but what is communicated.

Media in the digital age emphasizes speed, unlimited expansion, almost instant access, as well as an ephemeral quality. It is decentralized and purportedly lacks an authentic source of authority to adjudicate between and among contending interpretations. Hence, it is easily subject to manipulation and facilitates wide swings in voter response. However, when Marland quotes my friend Peter Russell, who pointed to the “emergence of political parties whose leaders employ the techniques of mass advertising to win and retain power,” (p. 52) he was really reciting what had been the case before the prominence of social media. The new social media allows communication to be far more targeted, to eschew advertising in favour of the development of images, scenes and actions that try to evade the sense of advertising as manipulation.

While Marland seems to grasp the critical differences between social and historic mass media, it is in terms of the latter that he frames his approach to the former.  Manipulation of voters rather than a dialogue among citizens of different political stripes is the emphasis when discussing narrowcasting and microtargeting, sound and image bites, and spin. Media logic is defined as the view that institutional actors change their behaviour in response to how journalists gather and report news, but Donald Trump, the master tweeter and traditional rabble-rouser in public rallies, seems to totally belie this presumption.

If we shift to the analysis of technique rather than material content, then branding and framing are perhaps the two most important. Marland, while not ignoring framing, emphasizes branding. “Framing,” he claims, “is narrow whereas branding is all-encompassing.” A brand is the result of the entirety of all framing. “Branding is addictive, it is circular and it is a seemingly unstoppable force.” Further, Marland argues that, “A branding lens is a good theoretical tool because it offers predictive power and an explanatory mechanism beyond left/right ideology.”  

However, I will start with framing and I trust it will become self-evident why I do so. Thus, building infrastructure can be framed in terms of higher taxes or critical long term investments. Marihuana use can be framed as a law and order or as a health and consumer enjoyment issue. The Conservative government initiated bills to increase penalties for drug distribution whereas the Liberals initiated steps to decriminalize the smoking of pot and regulate its growth and distribution.

In their attack ads, Conservatives accused Liberals of encouraging the sale of marihuana to children, whereas the Liberals denounced giving criminal records to individuals who were no danger to the public, especially when scientific evidence demonstrated that pot had health benefits, particularly in pain relief, and did not cause nearly the amount of harm of alcohol and tobacco, two legalized forms of drug sales for pleasure purposes. The Conservatives used public funds from Health Canada to advance their agenda while ignoring and even suppressing scientific input, much to the chagrin of Marland who deplores the use of public funds for partisan gain.

Moralizing, however much one might agree with it, is no substitute for in-depth analysis. Again, it is a surprise when reading Marland’s discussion of framing that there is no reference to the Berkeley linguist, the high priest of understanding political framing, George Lakoff, and his bestseller, Don’t Think of an Elephant. (His previous volume, Moral Politics, is a broader and more in-depth study.) It is noteworthy that, whereas Marland subordinated framing to branding as the overarching mode of synthesis, Lakoff insists that politicians, to be successful, must integrate their daily discussions on policy issues into an overall philosophy of governance in terms of fundamental principles that frame the debate. It is also noteworthy that Marland defends the priority of branding because of its predictive power, but it is George Lakoff who has the stellar reputation of predicting outcomes of presidential elections accurately.

Lakoff traced the rhetorical edge Republican presidential candidates take with respect to the underlying philosophical debate between paternalism and maternalism, between strict discipline versus nurturing in raising children. The former is associated with limited government and an emphasis on individual responsibility with priority given to defence, law and order and the responsibility of the head of a household for bringing an income into the family and ensuring prosperity. Poverty results from lack of initiative. Social welfare is counterproductive as it undermines self-reliance and fosters dependence. It was easy for Stephen Harper to marry this frame to a branding strategy based on discipline, control and micromanagement.

In contrast, a nurturing government aims at helping individuals maximize their potential while providing a safety blanket when life deals a damaging blow. Therefore, the stress is on providing equality of opportunity as well as a cushion. Since poll after poll indicates that the majority of Canadians favour the latter frame, that the latter serves their self-interest, why do electorates put paternalistic governments in power?

As Lakoff explains, it is because voters decide based more on framing an issue in terms of moral identity rather than self-interest. The Liberals (and the New Democrats) base their party platforms on serving the interests of the citizens of Canada. The Conservatives fight on a foundation of moral self-identity, really three contradictory identities, two of which are dominant: the tough, aggressive free enterpriser and the community conservative. There is also a peripheral moral superego stemming from a doctrine of moral virtues, which is where I suspect Marland is rooted.

The frame, the timing and the communication of that frame, not the discipline and control of delivering a message (the brand), helps determine outcomes. When Liberals or New Democrats or Democrats in the U.S. push only the issue of self-interest, they undermine a larger frame for liberalism. Success depends on enhancing that larger frame. Bernie Sanders understood that; Hilary Clinton and her campaign did not. Trudeau and his campaign understood that; Mulcair did not.

It is one thing to inverse the tension between framing and branding, between the general structure and the image or core message left with a citizen. It is another not to indicate that he is doing this in the face of the dominant lexicon. But the inversion does offer a clue to his position that stresses advertising, media management and manipulation versus a position that insists on the priority of establishing the basic principles upon which you stand. The brand should reflect principles instead of allowing the principles to exist as a by-product of an effort at branding.

Look at what Marland stresses: brand ambassadors rather than self-critical reflection, marketing, as if a political agenda was simply a shopping list in which political goods and services substituted for consumer ones. Very few consumer advertisers engage in distraction, defamation and attempts to de-brand the opposition or competition. Is consumer motivation an equivalent to voter mobilization? Why do we not call advertising partisan and why do we not label it as propaganda? Politics and a consumer culture occupy two different realms. We distinguish branding from framing, the consumer world from the political one, rather than melding them. When we make political reporting a form of infotainment and turn it into a realm of alt-facts and scandal mongering, often tied to pseudo-events, we pervert the field of politics.

While Marland is clearly aware of how branding works as well as how it was reflected in the Harper government, he seems to endorse sound and image bites as necessary outcomes of the need to retain mastery of the process through centralized control and the avoidance of tumult. The consequence of a politician who is great at simplifying and communicating his brand but lacks the discipline and the control elements in place to manage tumult, as can be seen if one compares the effort executed by the dry-as-dust Stephen Harper and the flamboyant mendacious narcissist, Donald Trump.

One cannot imagine Donald adopting a “Whole of Government” (WOG) approach to both governance and communicating a message, but, unlike Harper, Trump really runs a permanent political campaign. Marland seems to believe that permanent campaigning and control to ensure the communication stays on point are both outcomes as a result of prioritizing, but the Harper regime indicated that discipline and control could be one outcome and turning the project of governance into a permanent campaign could be another.

Top down centralized control may be necessary if you are going to turn politics into branding, but if politics is to be based on principles arrived at through reflection and debate, principles reflected in a common frame for a variety of approaches and outcomes that share only a family resemblance, then it may be preferable to work for a politics of dialogue and persuasion rather than a politics of top down messaging. With all of Marland’s proposals for fixing the system by, for example, separating government versus party branding (repaint the Liberal colours) and other distinctly side issues, his efforts of analysis of the communication strategies of the Harper government may be industrious and enormously detailed and documented, but given his own intellectual frame, he only delivers laboratory mice rather than significant policies for the political process.

Marland fails to show why the Harper style of governing is a necessary output of prioritizing branding, even if it is one possible outcome of the effort. Marland also cannot demonstrate how the analysis of the new media and new modes of communication necessitates a position prioritizing top-down versus bottom-up governance as was used in the Bernie Saunders campaign.

A volume which appears on the surface to be a critique of the Harper regime in defence of democratic principles turns out to be an apologia arguing for tweaks to the inconsequential, such as getting the government to publish the costs of photo-ops or changing the political colours of the Liberal Party. It is not inevitable that message consistency will be interpreted in the same monochromatic manner as was offered by Harper, or that, in politics, control will always emerge supreme as distinct from consent to pursue common purposes. If Marland wants to congratulate himself for seeing past and through personalities to uncover the structure and nature of contemporary communications beneath it, then he will have to be far more self-critical in understanding the connection between his conclusions and the intellectual frame he adopted in approaching the subject matter. Like Paul Rand in the United States, he is a principled nineteenth century liberal, one who imposes an ideology on contemporary communications, just as Harper imposed “tight communications discipline to ensure conformity.”

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Democratic Deficit in Canada

The Democratic Deficit in Canada

by

Howard Adelman

Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control [Brand] (Alex Marland)

Brand won the Donner Prize of $50,000 from a very distinguished jury. Brand is many books in one. First and foremost, it is a manual of government public relations for the digital age. Second, it is a history of the development and use of that manual by the Government of Canada, overwhelmingly the Stephen Harper regime, with some short excursions into the behavior of the Justin Trudeau. Third, it is an interpretation of causation in history, more specifically, that the characteristics of the digital age determined a specific outcome, radically changing the Canadian political culture. Fourth, and certainly not final, for that is my main interest, it is a portrait of Marland’s interpretation of Canadian political culture set against his enunciation of the norms of western democracy. Measured against those norms, the book is a depiction of the Canadian democratic deficit.

By far the largest part of the book is about the first and second topics.  However, I start with the last item, the conception of democracy itself and a democratic culture, a topic about which the author gives very short shrift (46-53), surprising in a book that uses democratic norms to assess and evaluate the communications culture of a specific democracy, that of Canada. However, this may not be so surprising since the book is only about a specific aspect of democracy, the efforts of politicians, political parties and governments to reach an audience of voters made up of disparate parts.

Those parts consist of the following: partisans; deliberators; single issue voters and hands on voters, the latter singularly and largely ignored in the digital age and ignored in this book as well, though they constitute as much as 15% of the electorate but are not reached by marketing, but by establishing a direct connection between the candidate and the voter. Hands on voters do not vote based either on ideas or ideology, at one end of the spectrum, or the power of advertising persuasion on the other. 

 Marland deals with partisans only in generic terms, sometimes regarding each voter as a tabula rasa whose loyalty and support, commitment and trust must be won and solidified through messaging. At other times, he seems to regard their dispositions and commitments as being bred in the bone. He does not sub-divide Conservative partisans into free-enterprise voters versus community conservatives, two groups which populate and divide the Conservative Party of Canada, or into self-interested voters who determine which party matches their specific individual needs and interests, a group divided between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party in Canada and representing the largest bulk of voters. Deliberative voters swing between and among parties and are usually branded as independents. The Green Party had been a single-issue party appealing to voters conscious that climate change is the most important topic on any political agenda, but, more recently, making a strenuous effort to broaden its appeal. There are other voters concerned with a wide range of other specific issues – abortion, LGBT rights, etc.

These connections are usually established by symbols and brands, in this case, the party names: Conservative, Liberal, Green and New Democratic. As parties, they are concerned with access to and performance by voters during elections (turnout and voting) and maintaining trust and, therefore, loyalty during the interval between elections. As an analyst, Marland is concerned with the values that ought to govern the relations between parties and government and their supporters – access to their representatives and transparency about what they do. Given his focus, Marland does not really discuss constitutions and laws, legislation and governance, except one key condition of representation and governance – communications – a necessary ingredient by means of which a democratic government, as distinct from other forms (tyrannies), earns and maintains its support, authority and legitimacy.

The means to do so rather than the definition of the common good preoccupies him, though one good is presumed – an informed electorate. What effect do government structures and practices, particularly current forms of communication, have on the relationship between citizens and their government? For Marland, the idea of a member of parliament simply representing the interests of his constituents is an allusion to a nostalgic past that may never even have existed. MPs have become “vital regional sales reps” in a system run by means of unrelenting centralized media management.

Party whips ensure members toe the line whatever their constituent concerns, speakers are given time limits, and the role of question period has become less relevant.  MPs have less rather than greater access to data and documents. The power of committees has been reduced as partisanship became the order of the day; representatives are portrayed as no more than lemmings unable to speak freely to their constituents or the media. The role of the legislature is reduced as the status of the executive, especially the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO), has been enhanced so that there are fewer sitting days and prime ministers and their cabinet members feel less obligated to face their peers in the House. The use of blogs and tweets by party members is highly controlled, a charge for which Marland provides little evidence. Communication strategies “embolden” tribalism rather than representative responsible government. As a result, trust in government in general has waned.

In a fundamental contradiction that runs through the book, this dystopic democracy is painted as, at one and the same time, an inevitable result of the new technology and as a failure of democratic leadership. Marland is both a causal necessitarian about history and a hectoring superego on the body politic given that control of the message now has such enormous consequences when a member “goes off message.” MPs have been reduced to the puppets of a ventriloquist.

Marland does offer one ray of hope – Gordon Chong’s Bill C-586 amending the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act giving the leader much less control and the member more opportunity to express him/herself, though Marland insists that the proof will be in the practices that result. However, the overwhelming mood of the volume is pessimism stemming from his adherence to the Innis-McLuhan thesis that “technology is the driver of social organization.” Further, with the development of electronic and visual communications, these forces have become more pervasive, more powerful and more potent.

In the next blog, I will take up the issue of whether his analysis of those tools of communication, the techniques used to employ them and their impacts determine political structures or whether his analysis is much more a reflection of the Harper government in Canada from which he derived the bulk of the content of his book. My own direct experience suggests the latter since much of the process of centralization had very little to with messaging and a great deal to do with control.

My main example is a proposal we submitted to amend existing migration policy. Rather than initiating a new program, we had proposed to take in refugees to replace temporary skilled workers. In the “old” days, the change would have taken less than a week for the minister to approve. We were informed that because it was so palatable to the government, it would be approved, but still would take four months. For every change had to be approved in the PMO. Eighteen months later, there was neither an approval nor rejection.

The process was particularly galling since the change, one tested in both Halifax and Calgary, would deliver a quadruple hit with only positive upsides. Business support existed and would grow because it was a program preferred by business which could do better long term training and planning at even less cost. Projecting a humanitarian face for the Harper government would certainly have been a result, and a needed one. At the same time, private sponsors eager to help the refugees could be satisfied instead of having to wait, sometimes more than a year, for the entry of those privately-sponsored refugees. The tweak to the existing program would also provide a back door to exit the unskilled temporary work program that had become such an embarrassment for the government.

Let me offer other examples, most also all based on direct experience wikth the Harper government:

  1. At the same time as the above, we were informed that ALL approvals, even for the purchase of more paperclips, had to go through the PMO, and that it took weeks even for miniscule authorizations;
  2. Libraries for helping write policy papers were removed from the department and placed in storage;
  3. The policy unit in the department had been dissolved;
  4. In a policy paper that I had been involved in writing, we were asked to excise the word “Syrian” because that term was anathema to the PM;
  5. Social and natural scientists working for government were muzzled;
  6. Outside knowledge that could disrupt plans and priorities was excised from any input into government – such as the cancelled long form census survey;
  7. I was also told, though I have not verified this, that civil servants were booking off sick days in record numbers; this was explained in terms of the impotence forcefully introduced into the civil service with a resultant pervasive depression when initiative was severely discouraged.

I could go on offering other examples, but most of the above have nothing to do with controlling a message and everything to do with our former PM being a control freak. What struck me in reading the book, and contrary to Marland’s insistence that he had been politically neutral, is that while he, like Tom Flanagan, whom he credits as an essential guide, was totally distressed by the huge democratic deficit that had been created, he seemed to want to find the Conservative Party innocent by removing any significant blame from Harper and placing it on the demands and drives of changing technology. In that way, the Liberals and Conservatives would be painted with the same brush while Marland preserved his superego standards intact.

There is a way of testing whether my hunch is correct or false, but that requires reviewing the tools and techniques available in the digital age, how they are used, and the impacts of both on government structures, organization and policies. This is the task I will take up tomorrow.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Undercutting or Reinforcing Canada’s Civic Religion

Undercutting or Reinforcing Canada’s Civic Religion

by

Howard Adelman

In the previous blog, I wrote about the philosophic underpinnings of our current Canadian value system, what I call our Canadian civic religion. The positive spirit of our time and place is well expressed in the values and morals that have become dominant in Canada. They express the Absolute as revealed in our history that is articulated in the religious and moral consciousness of our age. There is possibly no better place to observe this spirit at work than at an interfaith conference held in Canada’s capital to commemorate the country’s 150th birthday as those in attendance searched for solidarity in diversity. The conference focused on Islamophobia, social inequalities, the plight of aboriginal peoples and on immigrants and refugees. In the final blog of this series, I will address the key elements of that civic religion, but today, tomorrow and the next day, I want to describe the conditions of our time that threaten it.

This past week, I attended the awards ceremony of the Donner Prize, a $50,000 award given to the best book published in Canada or by a Canadian on a public policy issue. The criteria for the award include the topicality of the issue covered, its significance (in the sense of importance) and the skill in communicating the subject matter. When the chair of the jury described the criteria and the process, he did not mention the depth, breadth and quality of the research and analysis entailed, but these factors could possibly have been included in the third criterion. A discussion of the five books on the short list offers a convenient portal to explore core Canadian values.

The five nominees for the prize, with my short form of reference included in square brackets, were:

  1. L’intégration des services en santé:une approche populationnelle[HIS – health services integration] (Yves Couturier, Lucie Bonin & Louse Belzile);
  2. Priests of Prosperity: How Central Bankers Transformed the Postcommunist World[Priests] (Juliet Johnson);
  3. A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices[Good Death] (Sandra Martin);
  4. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age[Lies] (Daniel J. Levitin);
  5. Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control[Political Branding] (Alex Marland).

 HIS is about efficiency and efficaciousness, values widely held, applied to the delivery of health services. Since it is about organization and administration rather than the values themselves, I will not discuss this book as offering a source of critical reflection on the spirit of our time.  Priests, the most thoroughly researched book, as well as the one from which most could be learned that was new, was the one I favoured for the prize. But I was the only one at my table to do so and it did not win.

Priests is not about a civic religion rooted in the practices and values of the people, but about a priest-centered one. It is about the holy of holies in a materialist society: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and, most of all, the consensus developed among Western bankers on how the globalized international economy operates and the consensual neoliberal rules governing international monetary policy. Price stability, limited inflation targets, credibility and transparency were its central idols rather than employment, growth and social security. What better way to understand the priesthood than by examining the priests of another religion, a mercantilist one, converted and indoctrinated between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 2007.

The sacrificial goats in the West were those who had to absorb the impact of obsolescence and the home owners, particularly in the United States, who found the values of their homes underwater when the U.S. asset bubble suddenly deflated and Lehman Brothers collapsed. Unlike the banks, commoners were not bailed out by the neo-economic policies of the Obama program to save the Western financial system when the crisis became full-blown in 2008. And the crisis remains with us as Europe faces one crisis after another as the 2007-08 collapse turned into a sovereign debt crisis for some members of the EU. The priestly religion had lost its absolute authority and saintly status as the two elder children of the system (a puzzle for my readers) took their own lives as martyrs to save the system but, note, not reduce the suffering.

For no longer were monetary and financial policy to be left in separate silos to prevent the former from contamination by the latter. The priests, on the defensive, blamed the crisis on excessive risk-taking in financial policies by the politicians. The high priests were not to blame but, rather, the political commoners forbidden entry to the holy of holies who stormed the holy gates and, helped by a few wayward priests who betrayed their calling by innovating and not using consensual monetary policy to reign the upstarts in, contaminated the holy of holies. The temple was not destroyed. Its ramparts were reinforced as central bankers eased up on the strict monetary code with quantitative easing and other measures.   

This book, however, unlike my treatise, is about priests and not commoners, and the conversion and indoctrination of the priests of an alien mercantilist religion in Eastern Europe. The losers and the victims in the West are not the subject of this volume. In the final chapter, the book is also about the god that failed. The result, faith in globalization, in the international priesthood and its values and norms, suffered a drastic blow. One of the results – the rise of protectionism and mercantilism along with populism in the West. Juliet Johnson does not overtly deal with the irony of this outcome in her final chapter, but it haunts that whole chapter as the effort to salvage the role of the central banks rested, not on reducing their functions, but expanding them into micro-level financial regulation and supervision, thereby politicizing the banking system and removing its immunity from day-to-day politics.

The commoners were entering the holy of holies. Donald Trump was elected on a protectionist platform. He became a partner of Vladimir Putin in the effort to resurrect mercantilism, including the kleptocracy that accompanied such policies as Trump himself had been a beneficiary of the $500 billion Russia had accumulated in foreign reserves during the oil boom. Russian money was laundered through Western capital investments. If Putin and his cronies helped Trump, then Trump would return the favour now that the Russian economy was in dire straits. In turn, the Trump brand would directly benefit from the resurrection effort and the U.S. currency as the stabilizing factor of last resort was about to be put on the altar for sacrifice in the holy of holies, thereby contaminating it forever.

The fight for control of the Holy Temple is now in full swing. It is important background to my concern with civic religion.

Four of ten people at my table voted for Good Death to win the prize, but, like HIS and Priests, it also did not win. Good Death, like most of the other books on the short list for the award, is ultimately about social ethics. The book focuses on the right to die at a time of one’s choosing in the search to find the correct balance between compassion for the suffering and protection of the vulnerable, between individual choice and social responsibility.  As Sandra Martin wrote, “Baby boomers, reared on choice and autonomy, are radically restructuring the landscape of death, not only for themselves but for their elderly patients and the children coming up behind them.”

I mention her book as the first of the three dealing with civil society values because it affirms the critical importance of the leading cohort in society changing the ethics and practices in dealing with how and when a person chooses to terminate personal suffering. For the book is more about suffering than death. A good death comes with a minimum of suffering; this is the semi-Aristotelian premise of the volume.

Choice. Autonomy. In contrast to those values, Daniel J. Levitin in Lies contrasts the bad data, half-truths and outright lies in our current information age with the need to evaluate rational arguments, assess statistical data and recognize the meanings of words used in communication. Donald Trump demonstrates daily how limiting access to information – about workplace violation of norms and corporate disregard of environmental regulations that offer the new norm – has undermined Moses’ (Obama’s) political leadership in moving towards the Promised Land. While the financial crisis seriously weakened the sacred authority of monetary policy as set by central bankers, Trump was busy attacking the legitimacy of the polis itself by deregulating its role in every field as he issues ethical wavers to allow the profiteers and outright crooks to enter the political palace.

Levitin offers up the rabbinic codes of the information age, defining the proper use of statistics and how they are to be read, the role of clear and distinct language to replace obfuscation, and the role of informal logic to construct rational arguments and spot fallacies. The book is particularly strong on statistics but somewhat weak in its discussion of language while providing a clear and concise introduction to informal logic. However, it is like reading a nostalgic longing for the enlightenment, for rationality and for the scientific method in the face of a rise in philistinism and irrationality in public discourse.

Alex Marland, in the book that won the Donner prize, took an opposite tack and focused on the Canadian polity to uncover the role of unreason and control – in contrast with Sandra Martin’s celebration of choice and autonomy – in managing information and spreading a message. But it was the most moralistic book of them all, upholding a rationalism in public discourse, not as a standard as Levitin did, but as a “rational” populist political counter to the sustained effort to desecrate autonomy and choice in favour of collective thought on a niche level and the control over what people choose.

Branding is not inherently bad. The effort in marketing and selling an idea or a product by controlling images and messages from a central point of authority offers concision, simplicity and efficacy in communication. However, in his analysis, institutional weaknesses and the current digital media environment – not illogic, innumeracy and lack of literacy – are the culprits.

 

I end with Marland’s very sincere and spontaneous acceptance speech (he was truly surprised at winning). It dwelt with how to keep the threatening ghouls away from your door. The priests, evidently, will not protect you. Neither will simple good management. Presumably, confronting the sources of irrationality with logic, statistics, logical arguments and precision in one’s use of language will not keep the zombies at bay. In the age of messaging and mass manipulation, any emphasis on choice and autonomy might be a side show. What does Marland suggest in dealing with the outright lies, distortions and distractions of Donald Trump?

Turn the messaging mechanism off whenever Trump is discussed. Become a silent and distanced protester. Spend your considerable time on helping to forge Canadian policy where, in my words, a more compatible civic religion and political institutions exist. Will heeding the voice of a superego to ensure purity and immunity from contamination save us?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Underpinnings of Canada’s Civic Religion

The Underpinnings of Canada’s Civic Religion

by

Howard Adelman

Last week in Ottawa, I attended an interfaith conference called, “Our Whole Society: Religion and Citizenship at Canada’s 150th.” My talk, indeed the panel I was on, addressed the issue of immigration and refugees. A short report on my talk can be found in Peter Stockland’s article, “How Faith Fosters Civility,” in the magazine, Convivium, 19 May 2017:  https://www.convivium.ca/articles/how-faith-fosters-civility. I will elaborate on the talk I gave in a subsequent blog.

There are five in this series:

  1. Underpinnings
  2. Undercutting and Reinforcing
  3. Democratic Deficit
  4. Political Communication
  5. Canada’s Civic Religion

In this blog, I want to deal with the presumptions underpinning my observations of Canada’s civic religion. If you are disinterested in philosophical grounding, skip this blog. In subsequent blogs in the series, I will point to the conclusions of various communication sciences to indicate why the values of Canada’s civic religion, as best articulated in interfaith dialogue, will not save Canada from the disaster afflicting America. Only then will I provide a more comprehensive articulation of the norms of that civic religion and offer a critique.

The term “civic religion” may seem inherently contradictory. After all, we live in the Western world where there is a strict separation of religion and the state. Civic, in the sense used here, refers to civic duties of citizens of a state. Thus, we have a moral duty to vote, not as an inherent belief of one’s religion, but as a member of a democratic polity. Civic duties are about this world. Religious duties are often conceived to be about the world to come or about the transcendental power of a divine being that manifests itself in different beliefs and practices and, indeed, worship. Reason is purportedly the language of politics; faith is the language of religion. That religion has values which are used to inform conduct in this world. However, it is precisely this separation of the religious and secular worlds that is in play.

Immanuel Kant wrote that his efforts were undertaken to define the boundaries of reason and of knowledge to make room for faith. But his perspective shifted over his period of intellectual development. After the peak of his intellectual output for which he is best known, his voluminous three Critiques, published between 1787 and 1790, propounded the view in the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason that, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.” Subsequently, his definition of limits to reason and knowledge to make room for faith began to make room for a more subversive position. He asserted that religion was and had to be rational and had to provide the foundations of our values. Religion permeated civil and political society to constitute the core values of a society. God emerged from this intellectual journey as immanent rather than transcendent. This series of blogs is an exploration of how this took place in Canada.

There are many reasons offered for this shift, including non-rational ones, such as his resentment against the Prussian Junkers under Frederick William II for attempting to censor his writings on religion – Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. There were also cultural influences – his initial pietism stressing biblical study and moral behaviour, but later rejection of the side of pietism that celebrated external religious displays. His inherited Enlightenment convictions concerning the rule of reason led first to his rejection of creationism, and later his rejection of the belief that religion, and even science as a pursuit rather than a method, could be founded on reason alone. He became convinced that a rationally-based religion was not possible; religion was a matter of non-rational faith and had to retreat to make room for the universal truths of Newtonian science as he pursued the goal of rooting science in reason alone independent of an omniscient and perfect divine being. Finally, there was also the influence of Hume’s scepticism that rooted both religious faith and even scientific pursuits on habits forged by history and culture.

How are the dimensions of reason and empiricism, as well as reason and faith, reconciled? As he articulated his doctrine in his triad of great books, the Critiques, the reconciliation lay in the necessary preconditions for both faith and reason, of both empirical (the premise of causation) and deductive methods. For all were rooted in the necessary conditions for any thinking as revealed in his unique transcendental method that allowed for faith outside but ethical behaviour within the bounds of reason. Scientific reason, moral behaviour and practical judgement, even as they relied on experiential input, were all based fundamentally on a priori premises that were universally valid and a precondition of any thought whatsoever.

What emerged was the development of an ethical religion. For an adherent, it did not matter whether one was a Jew or a Lutheran. Both could worship the same God in defence of the same set of values that were themselves as universal as any religious creed. Establishment Jews in large numbers in Germany – the Polanyi, the Stern, the Baum families, abut whom I have been writing – converted to Lutheranism to practice the common ethical moralism of German society, ignoring entirely the deep roots of antisemitism in the writings of Martin Luther, the founder of that church. Of course, conversion also was opportunistic since the formal rules often banned Jews from taking up professorships in universities at one time. Karl Polanyi would develop an ethical economics, Fritz Stern an ethical history of Germany, Gregory Baum an ethical sociology and theology. Kant had introduced a seismic revolution for both Christianity and Judaism to allow both to live on the surface in imperfect harmony.

The superficiality of that harmony was revealed by Hegel and was ripped asunder by Friedrich Nietzsche. Emil Fackenheim, in The Religious Dimensions of Hegel’s Thought, pointed out that Hegel’s central critique of Kant was that the latter had failed, and failed absolutely, to reconcile faith and reason. And not just in thought, but in political and religious institutions. Kant facilitated mindblindness. Revolutionary forces were underway and Kant provided a rationale that allowed a positive ethical external religion to provide a cover that left the dynamics of ecstasy and action as well as the enthusiastic creative energy of spirit behind. Life throbbed. Kant only offered lifeless thought.

Hegel showed that philosophy, rather than being divorced from history in abstract thought, was, and had to be, understood as thoroughly rooted in context. Time and space were not abstract dimensions of sensibility and thought, but the experiential realities from which even barren thought arose. History was about resolving incongruences, not just the abstract ones at the core of Kantianism. History was about desire and passion, about power and economic needs, and, in the end, about conflict between old, outmoded institutions and the demands (and shortcomings) of the new. Philosophy was historical, not ahistorical. Further, life and philosophy were inherently religious as will become clear by the end of this series of blogs. And the comprehending activity of religion had itself to be critiqued and comprehended. The absolute was with us in every age and time and we comprehend the divine and the shortcomings of our comprehension through the examination of the absolutes of our time.

All our gods, all our absolutes, have failed and must be resurrected anew for each period. Judaism, unlike the Christianity of Kant’s Prussia or the Weimar Republic over a century later, understood that all these gods were different aspects of the one God that revealed himself in history while Christianity was a repeated effort to flee that insight, to flee its basic foundation, in favour of Greek abstract and ahistorical thought and theology. In reality, God descends, becomes immanent and sacrifices Himself in different modes in different times. Those who dub this as a progressive transformation are blind to the destructive forces let loose by the process of transformation as we experience at each stage the death of god and are required to go through a period of suffering and sacrifice.

In Hegel’s time, and in our own almost universally, man has once again repeated the ultimate sin, the sin of idolatry, the sin of narcissism, the sin of regarding and worshipping himself as divine. The alternative to the vision of an omniscient and omnipotent god need not be worship of the self and the ability of the individual to engage in self-realization and self-transformation. The latter sin and that idolatry, as well as the cover up for it, must be observed in the particulars of our time and the thought in which and through which history is understood and reflected. What we must search for and uncover is the partiality of all thought. Every attempt to comprehend it all will be doomed to be shattered as much as we may have faith in its overarching vision. Spirit itself as revealed in time is always partial and explains why we can never see and confront the face of God head on.

At the very beginning of the nineteenth century, Hegel defended twelve theses at a formal Disputation to earn his right to offer university lectures. The problem of philosophy was not the search for eternal and infinite wisdom, but the effort to reconcile the vision of the perfect with the reality of the imperfect, insisting that Kant had become frozen in carrying through the radicalism of Hume’s scepticism and had carried rational philosophy to a dead end by finding an absolute in itself, and becoming uncritical of itself.

In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the last section follows the section on Spirit with a portion on Religion, that discusses how we manifest our abstract religious beliefs and values in everyday life. Consciousness is institutionalized. And consciousness is merely the reflection of and reflection into human experience. Morality that is certain of itself becomes the distillation of that religious consciousness.

If Marx became the anti-Hegel by sacrificing religion in worship of the material realm, Nietzsche became the anti-Hegel by sacrificing religion to save spirit. Nietzsche’s enemy was Christianity, that element of and phase of Judaism that failed to recover from its exile in Babylon and return. Instead, Judaism turned inwards and became frightened. Nietzsche challenged the retreat into oneself in favour of the transvaluation of values, in favour of radical inversion of morality managed solely by the heroic individual. Instead, he opted to return to a form of paganism as he expressed in Ecce Homo, the need to develop a new breed of men, an elite, not one that led the workers of the world in revolt, but ones dedicated to taking humanity to a higher level. The premise, which challenged both the Judeo-Christian precepts and Kantian morality, was a denial, not simply as Hegel contended that humans were unequal in different ways at different times in their spiritual epic journey, but that salvation, as Marx insisted, depended on an avant-garde, an elite that led humanity into transforming itself fundamentally.

In Nietzsche’s view, Judaism once embraced this spirit of conquest, this consciousness of the necessity of power, both over others and to transform oneself, and the joy and hope to be found therein. But that spirit of self-transformation had been lost with rabbinic Judaism and its turn inward to legalism and with Christianity in the absolute submission of man in service of a divine Other. It was then that Jews sold themselves short and sold out to legalism and were sold out in turn and subsequently became the victims of persecution of those who rejected the rule of law in favour of suffering and sacrifice and the need of a scapegoat to escape that outcome for themselves. Diaspora Jews, who could and were in a position to save humanity and resurrect the life spirit according to Friedrich Nietzsche, largely cowered in fear and accommodated themselves to the dominating force of authority instead of expressing their historical dynamism by returning to nature, by returning to their roots in the land to once again become the strongest and toughest people on earth. Nietzsche did not live to see the rise of Zionism.

How were humans to accomplish this? Not by receding from history in service to the eternal and not by accommodating the dominant ethos of the status quo. Nor by expressing resentment concerning a disillusioned secular world, a world that had lost its sense of enchantment and awe to find deliverance either in the ecstatic escape of unreason or an escape into reason, individualism, self-making and self-overcoming.

Hitler declared, and Donald Trump now concurs, that, “The national government will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built up. Christianity is the foundation of our national morality and the family the basis of national life.” Hitler and Trump offered a mystical brew of pseudo-religion and purported self-interest that would soon reveal itself as the interest of the few and the deception and seduction of the many. What we need to examine is how, following Hegel, the dialectic of history has come to be interpreted pragmatically in the form of a set of overriding Kantian values for our time, and how that set of values, while inspiring high moral accomplishments, also blinds us the weaknesses of our own position as we are appalled at the values that we see articulated by Hitler copycats.

In Hegel’s time, it meant that Protestant clergy remained hostile to the truly liberal state as well as to Jews who refused to convert. Today, it means that this clergy embraces the values of the liberal state as well as their Jewish brethren. They have thrown overboard the doctrine of supersession in favour of shared beliefs, not only with Judaism, but with all other faiths. Some commentators believe that Democrats believe that all American Democrats need to do is copy Canadians and articulate the core values of the American civic religion in terms of historical connections and metaphors that touch their constituents.

An examination, first of our underlying nature and of various sciences, especially those involving communication, will try to show why that will not work (tomorrow), while, in the final blog in this series, a critique of Canadian interfaith values will try to delineate the shortcomings in terms of the population they do not reach and the declining power and efficaciousness of the civic religion of Canada.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Mother’ s Day

Mother’s Day

by

Howard Adelman

Dedicated to Ariella, who loves Yehuda Amichai in the original Hebrew,  

and my forthcoming great grandchild whom she carries in her swelling belly

 

At Torah study this past Saturday, Rabbi Mark Shapiro, visiting from Springfield, Massachusetts, where he had been rabbi at Sinai Temple, reintroduced me to the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, whom I had not read for years. Yehuda was reborn when he arrived in Palestine at the age of twelve, the same year my older brother, Al, was born. Like my brother, Yehuda died seventeen years ago.

As it turned out, Mark Shapiro was from Toronto, had once been an associate rabbi at my synagogue (1977-1982) when I was not a member, had studied intellectual history at York University when I taught there, and, most surprising of all to me, his father was Dr. Bernie Shapiro, head of Mount Sinai Hospital’s radiology (now called “Imaging”) Department where I worked when I lived in the hospital as a medical student.

One of the stanzas we read was the following third one from the poem, “My Parents’ Motel”:

My mother was a prophet and didn’t know it,
Not like Miriam the Prophetess dancing with
cymbals and tambourines,
not like Deborah who sat under the palm tree
and judged the people,
not like Hulda who foretold the future,
but my own private prophet, silent and stubborn,
I am obliged to fulfill everything she said
and I’m running out of lifetime.
My mother was a prophet when she taught me
the do’s and don’ts of everyday, paper verses
for one use only: You’ll be sorry,
you‘ll be exhausted, that will do you good,
you‘ll feel
like a new person, you’ll really love it, you
won’t be able to, you won’t like that,
you‘ll never manage
to close It, I knew you wouldn’t remember,
wouldn’t
forget give take rest, yes you can you can.
And when my mother died, all her little
predictions came together
In one big prophecy that will last
until the Vision of the End of Days.

(translation from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld)

What kind of prophet did Amichai envisage his mother to be? He contrasted her with Miriam, Deborah and Hulda. I begin by comparing her to Mary Ball Washington, the mother of George Washington, the first president of the United States.  In the Saturday Washington Post, Gregory Schneider wrote an article entitled, “The mother who made George Washington – and made him miserable.” (12 May 2017) The article begins with a tale as good as can be found anywhere in the Mishna about a visit George made to his mother when she was eighty years old. In just a few lines, we grasp the core of their relationship that makes it sound like one taken out of a Seinfeld episode.

George: Guess what? They want me to be president.

Mom: I’m dying.

George, flustered: Well, as soon as I get settled in New York, I’ll come back and …

Mom: This is the last time you’ll ever see me. But go, do your job. That’s more important.

Schneider described the relationship of George and Mary. George was very attached to his mother who hectored him as her son rolled his eyes at what she said. Evidently, when George was elected president and when he and Martha went to give her the news in Fredericksburg, Mary informed her eldest son that she was deathly ill. George knew his mother; he called her bluff and insisted that, in light of her announced impending death, he could not accept the position of president. Mary reputedly responded: “Go and fulfill the high destiny which Heaven has foreordained you to fill. Go, knowing that you go with a Mother’s and Heaven’s blessings!” Mary was not a prophet like Yehuda Amichai’s mother; God was. She, Mary, would suffer just so her son could serve out heaven’s promise.

When George was away in 1755 fighting alongside the French, and the battle was going poorly, his mother sent him a letter asking her son to send a servant – and some butter. George wrote her back stating that he was in no position to do either. Mary was subsequently portrayed by historians as a controlling shrew who tried to use George’s status to get money for herself from the government. George, in contrast to Donald Trump, was appalled. He intervened to inform the government that his mother had been very well provided for – he had bought her a house and helped administer her estate.

His mother was formidable and sent shafts of fear into the souls of his cousins. But she also worked hard and long to secure the well-being of her four boys and her daughter, but especially her eldest son. Some insist that she was truly kind. If Yehuda Amichai’s mother was a prophet who did not know it, a private prophet, silent and stubborn, Mary denied any abilities at prophecy while executing strong control over her son’s destiny. She had once predicted that George would suffer grievously if he became a soldier. She was wrong. He did not. He thrived as a military officer. Mary was also much more of a public figure, much more vocal in her claims on her son, but eventually bent “graciously” to a higher power.

While Yehuda Amichai felt “obliged to fulfill everything” his mother said, George only nominally accepted the obligation to do so. His form of acceptance undermined his mother’s ability to control him and his need to submit to her wishes. Amichai never developed or mustered the skills to escape his mother’s tight embrace and her haunting presence. Was this because she was a petty prophet but knew it not, while Mary Washington claimed no powers of prophecy, but always credited a higher power to predict great things? If Mary feared her son’s death, Yehuda’s mother feared that her son would become exhausted. Her cautions were all small, even petty. Mary’s were always grand and melodramatic.

But Yehuda would write, as George did not and could not, “when my mother died, all her little predictions came together in one big prophecy that will last until the vision of the end of days.” For God’s hand imitated that of his mother, “God’s hand in the world/ like my mother’s hand in the guts of the slaughtered chicken/ on Sabbath eve.”

Yehuda’s mother died on Shavuot, the last day of counting the Omer, forty-nine days or seven weeks after the second night of Passover. Shavuot commemorates the harvest as well as the giving of the law in the Torah as commanded in this past week’s portion – Leviticus 23:15-16. Yehuda has lived his life in anticipation of the revelation of the legal code, only to confront his mother’s death. He has spent a lifetime rolling the rock back uphill, a Jewish Sisyphus who must constantly give witness both to the effort and the disappointment just as he was reaching the pinnacle. For Yehuda, his mother’s death always signified the lost battles for the future.

What then was that big prophecy that he inherited? Yehuda wrote, “My Mother on Her Sickbed,”

My mother on her sickbed with the lightness
and hollowness of a person
Who has already said goodbye at an airport
In the beautiful and quiet area
Between parting and takeoff.

My mother on her sickbed.
All she had in her life is now
Like empty bottles in front of the door
That will show once more with colored labels
What filled them with joy and sadness.

Her last words, Take the flowers out of the room,
She said seven days before her death,
Then she closed herself for seven days,
Like the seven days of mourning.

But even her death created in her room
A warm hominess
With her sleeping face and the cup with its teaspoon
And the towel and the book and the glasses,
And her hand on the blanket, the same
hand that felt my forehead, in childhood.

Even in the end, there were the small instructions, but the directions had a much larger meaning. Mary Washington would use her allegedly coming death to try to blackmail her son, and, ironically, teach him the diplomatic skills of an artful dodger. Yehuda’s mother continued her retreat from the world to leave a warm and cozy space for her son. As a result, Yehuda always held his mother close, though she had none of the enormous stature of Mary Washington. He wrote another poem called, “My Mother Once Told Me.”

MY MOTHER ONCE TOLD ME

Not to sleep with flowers in the room..
Since then I have not slept with flowers.
I sleep alone, without them.

There were many flowers.
But I’ve never had enough time.
And persons I love are already pushing themselves
Away from my life, like boats
Away from the shore.

My mother said
Not to sleep with flowers.
You won’t sleep.
You won’t sleep, mother of my childhood.

The bannister I clung to.
When they dragged me off to school
Is long since burnt.
But my hands, clinging
Remain
Clinging

(translated by Assia Gutmann)

If Mary thought she was a prophet, but was not, Yehuda’s mother was a prophet but knew not. She focused on the small things, the small matters, including the belief that flowers left in the room of a sick patient would kill that patient by sucking all the oxygen out of the room. Yehuda’s mother always wanted to ensure her son had lots of oxygen. Mary Washington demanded that her son bring back oxygen to fill her room.

We all have different mothers. We may go somewhere they did not foresee or somewhere they feared and where they did not want you to go. Some worry and fret for their sons. Others worry and fret about their own loss. The latter are divas; the former are tiny song birds.

My mother was not a prophet and knew she was not. She dedicated her life to her three sons and taught us petty dos and don’ts, almost all of which we did not and did. When she was young before she married, she danced with cymbals and tambourines, but unlike Miriam, she was not a prophet. She judged others, but she never sat under a palm tree to dispense her judgments like Deborah. And she never could foretell the future. But she bathed in it and joined her grandchildren in the bathtub. My mother was not a baker like my Aunt Gladys or Yehuda’s mother who “baked the whole world” for him “in little sweet cakes.”

My mother was stubborn in voice but easy in manner. And I escaped the obligation to fulfill her dream and become a doctor. I never learned, and never wanted to learn, whether I broke her heart when I left medical school. Like Yehuda’s mother, my mother worried and fretted the small things, but comfortably ignored any of my larger accomplishments. She never once heard me give a lecture or speech. She was too embarrassed to attend my play, Root Out of Dry Ground.

If George used subterfuge to escape the tight reins of his mother and if Yehuda was always left clinging, even when he became a star in the heavens of poetry, my mother, in spite of her fears, in spite of her dread, in spite of her disappointments, always left space for me and counted on me, as Mary Washington counted on George, but with credit rather than with demands, with loving kindness rather than any meanness of spirit.

Yehuda turned out to be direct and simple, I indirect and dialectical. Yehuda’s poetry is open and hospitable; I sometimes write to drive people away. Yehuda is both passionate and tender; I am passionate but tough. And unlike myself, Yehuda is witty and wry. He translates what he finds into poetry; I find poetry to discover meaning. Yehuda had a father who was his God and against whom he rebelled. My father was a rebel against whom I had no need to revolt so full was I of revulsion. Neither of us are artificers who have learned the arts of the necromancer and the alchemist.

Do we blame or credit our mothers? Where Yehuda Amichai clung to a bannister when they dragged him off to school, my mother clung to me in her arms as she leaned against the bannister on the first floor of her parent’s home where we lived; she cried and wailed at the death of her mother upstairs when I was a year old. I lived “to walk through/the deep ravines between her sobs.” My mother’s eyes danced on their own in spite of her sorrows. Yehuda’s mother’s eyes were sad, “the only ones that could compete” with his father’s eyes “in the ancient Jewish game of heavy eyes sliding into hollows beneath.”

I supported my mother then, when I was one year old. She supported her three sons ever since. And her grandchildren and great grandchildren all know what a great woman       their little bubby was.

Fuck God!

Fuck God!

by

Howard Adelman

Wow! Neither the crusading atheists, Richard Dawkins nor Christopher Hitchens, wrote that. Hitchens did say to religious believers, “Fuck you” and Fuck off,” but never wrote or verbalized “Fuck God” to the best of my knowledge. That is because he was more interested in writing about his disbelief in God than indicating any relationship to God. For someone who blasphemes God suggests an irritation or anger with God, Otherwise, why say it? Irritation or anger with someone is not denial or banishment to an unspoken world. I wanted the reader to have at least a sliver of understanding about the powerful effect of blaspheming God.

Nevertheless, the expression in the title remains ambiguous. Not in its meaning! It is unequivocally a blasphemous statement. But it is ambiguous in the sense that the reader does not know whether I am asserting what the phrase says or whether I am writing down the phrase as an object for dissection. I could have put the expression in quotation marks, but that would not have helped much. Because I could be quoting myself. Further, I would have lost some of the impact. I want readers to grasp what blasphemy is directly since we are far removed from a world and a time when blasphemy was not merely shocking, but a reason to stone me to death for making such an utterance. If I may cite an eminent authority, Prince Charles declared that we had lost the sense of the sacred in our public life. We no longer recognize that cursing God should arouse revulsion, rage and revenge. When religious identity is at the core of who you are, then cursing God is akin to calling someone a dirty Jew.

Last evening, I saw an excellent Israeli Bedouin film called Sand Storm. At one point in the movie, a first wife not only disobeys her husband, but talks back to him and goes further and even insults him. She is not stoned. But she is “banished” from her husband’s compound and, in disgrace, sent back to the home of her parents and separated from her four daughters. We would not only regard the punishment as unacceptable, but as cruel and unjust. On the other hand, in the rabbinic tradition, capital punishment for blasphemy was avoided by resorting to the lesser penalty of banishment for limited periods, say seven days, though in the most liberal of states, the Netherlands, Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated in the middle of the seventeenth century for life for his pantheistic interpretation of God. (The condemnation has never been reversed.)

On my birthday two years ago on 7 January 2015, the newsroom massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo took place in Paris. The instigation for the attack was alleged blaspheme – and not even of God, but of one of his most important prophets – Muhammad. Charlie Hebdo spent years mocking believers and institutions like the Roman Catholic Church. Its cartoons were trenchant and telling, for the target was the marriage of belief and power and the elevation of some subjects to the sacred. The Catholic Church sued Charlie Hebdo 14 times, each unsuccessfully. The constant object of attack was the hidden and not so hidden racism in French society that hides behind white robes and the so-called civility of society.

This was precisely the subject of debate when two brothers, Said and Chérif Kouachi, with Kalashnikovs and a grenade launcher stormed the offices of the magazine shouting, “Allah Akbar,” God is great! as they fired indiscriminately and insisted that, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” (On the same day, in addition to the journalists, a policeman as well as members of the Jewish community were murdered at other locations.) For Al Qaeda had vowed revenge when Charlie Hebdo first printed the portrait of the prophet on its front cover and then republished the infamous Danish caricature mocking Islamic fanaticism nine years after the cartoon first appeared. In defence of Al Qaeda, does not the Hebrew Torah also condemn cursing Abraham as well as God? (Exodus 22:27)

Canadian law (Criminal Code Section 296) still prohibits blasphemy, a critical issue for many now that Bill M-103 has passed condemning Islamophobia. Blasphemy is the act of showing contempt or failing to display reverence and respect for religious symbols or persons. Though the penalty is not execution or stoning, you can get up to two years in prison.

  1. (1) Everyone who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years

(2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.

(3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in contrast, in 1952 in the case of Joseph Burstyn v. Wilson ruled that “it is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion pictures.” Under the blasphemy laws until Cromwell intervened, a Sephardic Jew and physician, Jacob Lumbrozo, whose family had once fled the inquisition, was charged in Maryland, a Catholic colony, in 1658 with blasphemy under the ironically named Toleration Act of 1649 that adumbrated the language of the laws of George Orwell’s 1984.

The fight was over freedom of expression. For in our contemporary Western secular civil religion, freedom to say what you want is far more sacred than any reverence for divinity. But not everywhere. Specifically, not in the Middle East. Fanatics were causing mayhem and murder in their war against the new secular civic religion. In defence of the latter, some journalists were willing to risk and even sacrifice their lives. And sacrifice they did. All for insisting that laughter had to be protected in the face of assaults on it in the name of something else regarded as sacred. Charlie Hebdo was not against, was not opposed, to those who would elevate God or Jesus or Muhammad to sacred status. It did fight against those who would deny its right to have its own set of sacred values. Charlie Hebdo was not Islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo was philofreedom.

On the other hand, would Charlie Hebdo defend the right of Islamicists not only to openly advocate suppressing blasphemous speech, but to urge a community to stone or kill by other means anyone who engages in blasphemy? Would Charlie Hebdo not insist on some boundaries to free speech as a central core value, i.e., when free speech is used to advocate attacks on free speech and the murder of its defenders? When or if caveats are used to limit free speech in the name of free speech, especially if the defender of this position is an anarchist and/or pacifist like many of the journalists writing for Charlie Hebdo, is this not hypocrisy? Whatever one’s position, it does make clearer the strong motivation behind laws against blasphemy.

Whatever criticisms I have had of the French secular civil religion of laicité and its own paranoid intolerance of hijabs, that religion does affirm the right to be blasphemous. (See Caroline Fourest (2015) Éloge du blaphsphème, In Praise of Blasphemy, Grasset.) The civic religion of North America does not, and no English edition was published even though the United States is far ahead of Canada on this subject. Further, the current compassionate Pope Francis in some sense defended the murderous response to blasphemy as “normal.”

And it once was. Blasphemous, irreverent or sacrilegious words about God are not only condemned, but acts not strictly in accord with God’s instructions for behaviour in the holy of holies are worthy of capital punishment as well. God killed the two eldest sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, for making such an error. Profaning God’s name was equivalent to profaning God’s home. Fanatical Islam simply expands the targets to anyone insulting the Prophet of Islam. One of the deep roots for the condemnation of blasphemy is to be found in this week’s portion of Leviticus. And not only in Leviticus. Exodus 22:27 reads:

אֱלֹהִים לֹא תְקַלֵּל וְנָשִׂיא בְעַמְּךָ לֹא תָאֹר. You shall not revile God, nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people.

Insulting the head of state is also considered blasphemy.

The opening chapter of Parashat Emor (verse 6 of chapter 21) reads:

קְדֹשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם… They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God.

The injunction is repeated in 22:32. “Don’t profane my Holy NAME that I may be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel.”

The wording in Leviticus 25:14 sets out the penalty:

ויקרא כד:יד הוֹצֵא אֶת הַמְקַלֵּל אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה וְסָמְכוּ כָל הַשֹּׁמְעִים אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל רֹאשׁוֹ וְרָגְמוּ אֹתוֹ כָּל הָעֵדָה. Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.

Leviticus 24:15 states:

ויקרא כד:טו …אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יְקַלֵּל אֱלֹהָיו וְנָשָׂא חֶטְאוֹ. כד:טז וְנֹקֵב שֵׁם יְ-הוָה מוֹת יוּמָת רָגוֹם יִרְגְּמוּ בוֹ כָּל הָעֵדָהכַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח בְּנָקְבוֹ שֵׁם יוּמָת. Anyone who vilifies his God shall bear his guilt. And the one who invokes the name of YHWH shall surely die, all the assembly shall surely stone him; the ger and the citizen alike, he who invokes the name shall die.

The impression seems clear. Blasphemy is verboten and deserving of the harshest punishment. However, is that the lesson of the text? I suggest otherwise. The text offers one case study. (24:11) The son of an Israelite woman who married an Egyptian gets into a fight with an Israelite and says the equivalent of, “Fuck God!” Moses, upon God’s command, orders the community to remove that individual and stone him. Banishment alone was insufficient given the perceived enormity of the crime.

וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל וַיָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ שְׁלֹמִית בַּת דִּבְרִי לְמַטֵּה דָן. The son of the Israelite woman invoked the name, vilifying it, and he was brought to Moses. And the name of his mother was Shelomith, daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan.

But then why is the description of this event immediately followed by a universal injunction against taking another’s life? Is the passage and the general narrative really about an objection to blasphemy or is it an objection to a norm which justifies murder provoked even by blasphemy? For is not the implication of the initial tale of a fight between an Israelite and a child of a mixed marriage that the fight was about racism? This fight ran contrary to the injunction to welcome the stranger, to welcome the ger. And even within the laws of blasphemy, was not the ger to be treated equally with any Israelite? The key question is whether the incident illustrates how important and sacred are laws protecting the sacred so that those who defile God’s name are to be put to death. Or is the story told to carry the message that racism is wrong and that murder in the name of blasphemy is heinous?

We have two interpretations of the same narrative that are totally at odds. In one, a standard version, the text stresses the enormity of the crime of blasphemy and the consequent severe punishment for engaging in it. For blasphemy was an attack on the central core beliefs of the Israelites in their one and singular God. Reverence for God is absolutely necessary to preserve and strengthen the identity of the Israelites as holy, as God’s chosen people. Profaning the name of God detracts not only from the reverence for God, but turns the utterer away from being holy to being profane. (21:6) God, in turn, may, as a result of such treatment, turn his back on His chosen people and abandon them as unholy. Further, when the sacrilege of blasphemy takes place, it is necessary to unite the people in defence of God’s name.

In the other interpretation, the real issue is racism and the gross mistreatment of someone who curses God. What is the evidence for questioning the standard interpretation? A least, what are the puzzles that give rise to questioning the standard traditional account?

Note the following:

  • The boy (not man) who commits the “crime” of blasphemy is the child of a mixed marriage.
  • There is an implication that the altercation that gave rise to his cursing God was the use of a racial epithet against him.
  • Though the son is not named, the Israelite mother is, Shelomit (a peacenik (though Rashi calls her a strumpet), daughter of Dibri (from dever, destruction) of the tribe of Dan; there is also the suggestion that she was a single mother, possibly the mother of a son that was the result of rape by an Egyptian man in an inversion of the Moses story.
  • Professor Wendy Zierier has pointed out that the phrasing used is both unusual and follows the same formulation as the reference to the matriarch, Rebecca, “who is referred to as רִבְקָה בַּת־בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם, “Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean, from Paddan-Aram,” a formulation also used to depict the kings of Israel.
  • Why is the parent of a blaspheming son provided with such a lofty designation and what had her preachiness about peace and her heritage from a shit-disturber have to do with the meaning of the story?
  • There is the repeated stress that all children of God, not just Israelites, fall under the injunction not to profane God’s name.
  • Further, Israelites are specifically enjoined not to wrong the ger, the stranger who lives amongst them.
  • However, there is the suggestion that an Egyptian, unlike the stranger, is not to be treated equally because he introduced an “impurity” into the Israeli blood – if this sounds racist, that is the intention; after all, Leviticus insists that it is wrong to wear clothes made of mixed materials or to take one breed of cattle and “mix” it with another.
  • Further, the father of that son was an Egyptian, a ember of a people whose oppression the Israelis fled; the boy is not just of a mixed “race,” but his father was an enemy and not just a stranger living among the Israelites.
  • In the punishment, the boy is first banished from the camp and stoned outside it.

The answer to these puzzles, which I can only sketch, interprets the tale, not as a defence of blasphemy laws, not as a defence of racism, not as a defence of patrilineal descent, but as a stricture against such values. It is precisely because laws of blasphemy can be abused by those in power, as Queen Jezebel used them to punish and take away the vineyard for her husband, King Ahab. Donald Trump has demonstrated that he is made of the same deformed spirit who would punish those not absolutely loyal to and in service of his regime so that what he says is not hate speech, but what the critical media write.

The meaning of the tale is given by the ending – do not murder. Do not kill. Especially, do not kill in the name of protecting God’s name. If that is the case, why does God order Moses to tell the people to stone the boy? I suggest it is a parallel to God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son. Only this time, God does not intervene and save Moses from such a heinous act. Moses carries it out and stains the future of Jewry and of all humankind just as he once, in rage against an Egyptian overseer’s injustice, killed that Egyptian. In the end, Moses never learned to overcome his rage and all humans had to be enjoined not to kill.

The Few and the Many: Gregory Baum and the Creation of Israel

The Few and the Many: Gregory Baum and the Creation of Israel

by

Howard Adelman

In the previous two blogs, I tried to show why Gregory Baum was wrong in arguing first, that Orthodox Jews hesitated to support Israel because they believed that Israel could only be recreated by an act of God – indeed, only a small Orthodox sect, the Neturei Karta believed that. Second, Gregory argued that had there been no Hitler and no Holocaust, there would have been no Israel. Though there is a thread of plausibility in this thesis, and a few arguments and pieces of evidence support it, and though this is a belief also widely held in the Jewish community, I offered a number of arguments to demonstrate it is an erroneous thesis.

In this blog, I want to take up the other six quantitative theses of Gregory Baum’s anti-Zionist position in a slightly different order than first presented. Before Gregory shifted to theology, he earned an MA in mathematics. Therefore, it is thus more surprising to read the gross numerical errors concerning Zionism. The six quantitative theses are as follows:

  1. The Zionist Ideology Minority Thesis (ZIM) prior to Hitler.
  2. The Few Thesis: only a “few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine” prior to Hitler.
  3. The Arab Opposition (AO) Thesis: those few thousand “would have found a space there without gravely disturbing the local population.”
  4. The Zionist Majority Thesis (ZM): large scale migration to Palestine led to the shift to majority support for Zionism.
  5. The Creation Thesis: that mass migration led to the creation of the State of Israel.
  6. The Conflict Thesis: mass migration also led to the conflict with the Arabs.
  1. The Zionist Ideology Minority Thesis (ZIM) prior to Hitler.

Gregory is correct. Prior to Israel, Zionism was a belief held by only minority of Jews. But so was Bundism (Socialism), Communism, Orthodoxy, Ultra-Orthodoxy, Liberalism, Assimilationism, or the Reform Movement. This is certainly true compared to what emerged after the creation of the State of Israel. Zionism became the clear majority belief among all Jews; it has remained the predominant belief since then. The issue is not that Zionism was a minority ideology before 1933, but whether Zionists constituted a significant minority prior to the accession of the Nazis to power. World Jewry has never articulated its views in a single voice. Even currently, when a majority of Jews support Israel, there are many different ways in which that support is manifested and different beliefs supporting the myriad of voices.

  1. The Few Thesis: only a “few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine” prior to Hitler.

There is a hint of truth in this thesis, but one which reveals its overall gross distortion. With the rise of Hitler, the level of support for Zionism in 1936, particularly in America, was significantly higher than in 1932. But that does not mean that Zionist support prior to the rise of Hitler was insignificant. More particularly, with the plight of German Jewry worsening and the gates closing on immigration to America, Zionists could promote resettlement in Palestine in a way they could not in the years prior to Hitler’s accession to power. Those efforts earned support among individuals who would previously had nothing to do with Zionism. On the other hand, Britain began to close the gates even more to Jewish immigration in 1935, just 3 years after Hitler was first elected. Given the growing trend in the pattern of Jewish migration to Palestine prior to 1932, and had the original number of Jews been allowed to stay alive, it is safe to assume that, by 1947, the total number of Jews interested in migrating to Palestine would have grown in at least the same proportion as it did prior to the rise of Hitler. At the very least, there would have been as many Jews in Palestine as there were after the rise of Hitler and the catastrophe of the Shoah.

My focus will be on the five decades between 1882 and 1932 to assess whether there were only “a few thousand” Jewish arrivals in Palestine during this period.

The numbers of Jews and Arabs in Palestine who arrived in each of the following decades after 1880 before the rise of Hitler is a matter of some controversy. So are the Jewish and Arab percentages of the total population. I do not intend to sort through the various positions. Nor do I have to, for it takes very little effort to demonstrate an overwhelming consensus that the claim that, prior to the rise of Hitler, only “a few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine,” is false. The claim is not only demonstrably false, it is so erroneous, regardless of the estimates used, that it constitutes a gross misrepresentation and misperception.

Without getting into the variation in estimates, in 1880, only 3% of the population of Palestine was Jewish out of a total population of about 450,000; 94% were Arabs. Jews lived in Safed and Jerusalem and constituted the largest plurality in the small populations in those two towns at the time.

In the Third Aliyah between 1917 and 1923, in spite of quotas imposed on Jewish immigration to Palestine, 40,000 more Jews migrated to Palestine, bringing the total number by 1923 to 90,000 halutzim or pioneers who had resettled in Palestine (see the August 1925 “Report of the Executive of the Zionist Organization.”) It was a period when marshes were drained, roads built and towns established. Even critics of the Zionist figures, such as Justin McCarthy, agree with the British census that the total population of Palestine had risen to 725,000 by 1922 of which 84,000 or about 12% were Jewish. Other estimates offer a percentage of 12.4% or 90,000.

In the Fourth Aliya from 1925 to 1931, another 80,000 Jews resettled in Palestine. The number of Jews had doubled and the percentage of the total population had increased to over 16%. Of the almost 225,000 Jews who resettled in Palestine in the Fifth Aliya between 1931 and 1939, in the first two years an estimated 60,000 more had arrived. Thus, Zionist migration to Palestine probably totalled about 230,000 by then. This is not “a few thousand.” In the next fifteen years, in spite of the British barriers to migration imposed in 1935, the total Jewish population of Palestine had risen to 630,000 representing almost 32% of the population by 1947.

Without the rise of Hitler, given the rate of increase of the Jewish population over the previous fifteen years from 1917-1932 and projecting forward, without even considering the constant acceleration in the number of arrivals, the Jewish population would have doubled again to 460,000 rather than 630,000. If the rate of acceleration is taken into account, bracketing the war, the Holocaust and British barriers, it is estimated that about the same numbers would have arrived that actually did. That is, without Hitler, without the Holocaust, the number of Jews in Palestine would have been at least as many in 1947 as ended up there.

  1. The Arab Opposition (AO) Thesis: those few thousand “would have found a space there without gravely disturbing the local population.”

Quite aside for the number of Jews numbering far more than a few thousand, the thesis that if only a few Jews had migrated into Palestine, the Arab populations would have received them in peace is even a larger falsification. First, the Jews who arrived did not displace any Arabs prior to 1947. Though there is a debate over numbers, there is a general agreement that the booming Jewish economic sectors in Palestine attracted an in-migration of Arabs. Yet, in spite of the economic benefit, in spite of the fact that in 1922 Jews only constituted 12% of the population and totaled only about 80,000 to 90,000, Haj Amin el-Husseini emerged as the radical voice of the Palestinians. He organized fedayeen (suicide terrorists) who began to attack Jews in 1919.

Thus, Gregory perpetuates a double misrepresentation. First, that Jewish immigration prior to the rise of Hitler was small. Wrong! Second, that the initial reception of Arabs was peaceful. Wrong again! The leadership was violent even when the in-migration of Jews, though significant, was not threatening at all. In 1920, the first of a series of Arab riots began during Passover. Attacks increased in 1921. In spite of that history, in spite of being arrested and sentenced for sedition, in 1922, the British government released el- Husseini and appointed him Mufti.

Further, from that position, he consolidated power over the Arab community, taking control of all the assets and income of the mosques as well as controlling the educational system and the administration of sharia law. Like many dictators in the Arab world that succeeded him, like Erdoğan in Turkey or Putin in Russia, and, frankly, consistent with the actions of Donald Trump currently, no one could hold a position unless personally loyal to the Mufti. Given the power he accumulated so quickly, the British mandatory authority tried to assuage him by restricting Jewish immigration to “absorptive capacity.” But even that was not sufficient. Husseini insisted on zero immigration. Gregory Baum’s thesis on this issue is just balderdash.

  1. The Zionist Majority Thesis (ZM): large scale migration to Palestine led to the shift to majority support for Zionism

This causal analysis reminds me of the tale of the scientist working on the causes of drunkenness. He conducted an experiment giving his subjects equal amounts of gin and water on day 1, bourbon and water on day 2, vodka and water on day 3, scotch and water on day 4, and rye and water on day 5. After he observed that the subjects became equally intoxicated each day, the scientist concluded that the cause of the intoxication was the water.

Gregory’s error was rather more egregious, for there is a temporal factor. Mass migration took place AFTER the creation of the State of Israel with the huge influx of Jews from Arab lands as well as a good part of the survivors left in the DP camps in Europe. Yet evidence suggests that the support for Israel became a majoritarian perspective with the creation of the State of Israel. Majority support for Israel preceded large scale migration.

  1. The Creation Thesis: mass migration led to the creation of Israel

This is virtually the same issue, but applied to the non-Jewish world. Britain prevented mass migration to Israel from 1935 to 1948. The migration that took place mostly occurred in spite of British policies. In 1947, the UN members offered majority support for creating the State of Israel to get rid of the 250,000 refugees in the camps as well as for a host of reasons within Palestine. The creation of the state and the Arab resistance to that majority decision, the invasion of the nascent State of Israel by Arab states and, mostly, the persecution of their own Jewish citizens by those and other Arab states, led to the mass migration. Mass migration followed and did not precede the creation of the State of Israel.

  1. The Conflict Thesis: mass migration led to the conflict with the Arabs.

The above account also demonstrates the perfidiousness of this final thesis. I want to end, not by summarizing, but by asking how such a genuinely good man could arrive at such heinous conclusions. They are not the conclusions of Gregory alone, but of leaders in the United Church in Canada and of my other three friends and colleagues who joined with him in writing the terrible 1970s ecumenical paper based on more or less these same arguments.

One explanation is that none of the four were historians. But most of the information cited above was publicly available. One did not have to be a historian to avoid such egregious errors in judgment. Another approach to find an explanation examines the development of their ideas in the context of their personal and institutional histories. Gregory’s position must be viewed in such a context. He is a Roman Catholic. However, there has been a movement of reconciliation with Judaism in the last fifty years among Catholics. On the religious level, Gregory played a leading role. But not on the political level! The Holy See established formal relations with Israel only in 1993, well after Gregory’s influence had waned. Historically, the papacy had been consistently hostile to Zionism as an ideology. The Church actively opposed diplomatic efforts to promote the Zionist cause through resettlement of Jews in the first decades of the twentieth century. (Cf. Sergio Minerbi, The Vatican and Zionism, Oxford U.P., 1990)

However, I believe the main cause is mindblindness, an inability or unwillingness to see what is in front of you plainly in view. One final example. In that older seventies paper I recall one of the arguments was over the Crusades, an argument in which Gregory expressed a specific Christian responsibility for the Crusades that was the exertion of Western power against the Arabs in the Middle East. Whatever the value of that thesis, most noticeable was the omission of any effects of the Crusades on the Jews who had been devastated by pogroms perpetrated by the Crusaders.

When guilt over the Crusades was married to guilt over the desire to ethnically cleanse European Jews, the two premises were synthesized in the willingness and desire to dump Europe’s problems with Jews onto the Arabs. Whether or not neo-colonialism should be viewed as a modern extension of the Crusades, the assumption of guilt for pushing the Jewish problems onto the Arabs seems totally unwarranted, especially given that almost half of the Jewish population in Israel is made up of Jews forced to flee Arab countries. However, I do not believe that mindblindness should be viewed as a form of antisemitism.

Gregory Baum: Orthodox Jewish Hesitation About Zionism

Corrupt History II – Gregory Baum on Pre-Independence Zionism

  1. Orthodox Jewish Hesitation About Zionism

by

Howard Adelman

In my analysis of the claim that Christian churches supported the creation of the State of Israel because of “the historical guilt for the contempt they have shown to Jews and Judaism,” I tried to indicate that the Roman Catholic and prominent Protestant theologians a) expressed no such guilt in 1945-1947 and b) were not strong supporters of the creation of the State of Israel. In this blog, I want to go back earlier. Gregory Baum contended in his memoir that, “the distant cause of the seemingly irresolvable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is Hitler’s genocidal anti-Semitism and the Final Solution engineered by him. Before Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, Zionism was a small movement in the worldwide Jewish community.” (p. 151) Was the rise of Hitler and his genocidal ambitions and practices responsible for the emergence of Zionism as the dominant ideology of the Jewish community in the 1930s and 1940s?

Though this position includes a sliver of truth, an examination of the various propositions making up this claim reveals a much greater distortion. The claim consists of eight theses which I first offer as quotes and then reconfigure as sub-claims:

  1. “Orthodox Jews had religious hesitations with regard to Zionism: the promised return to Jerusalem, they believed, would be a religious event, an act of God, not the result of a secular movement supported by political power.”
  2. “If there had been no Hitler and no Auschwitz, Zionism would have remained a small movement.”
  3. Further, a “few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine.”
  4. Those few thousand “would have found a space there without gravely disturbing the local population.”
  5. “Because of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the self-understanding of Jews changed: looking upon their historical situation in the Diaspora as precarious, they now supported the aim of the Zionist movement – the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, a safe haven for Jews experiencing persecution in their country.”
  6. “Now Zionism attracted vast numbers of Jews to Palestine.”
  7. “The mass migration, supported by the international Jewish community, led to the creation of the Jewish State.”
  8. That mass migration led, “inevitably to the conflict with the Palestinian population.”

It is one thing to make erroneous claims about Christian support for Israel and its origins. It is a calumny for a non-Jew to rewrite history without empirical support when speaking of the dynamics of the Jewish community. These eight theses, briefly stated, summarize the conceit of liberal universalists critical of Zionism, criticism that goes well beyond any just criticism that the government of Israel has earned. These universalists may be religious or secular, they may claim to offer a “balanced” view, but the foundation of their critique is deeply rooted in their alternative history, history, while sometimes having a thread of truth, is ultimately devoid of substantive empirical support. The eight theses are as follows:

  1. The Orthodox Jewish (OJ) Thesis:

The non-support of Zionism by Orthodox Jews before the Holocaust.

  1. The Hitler/Holocaust (H/H) Thesis:

H/H were jointly responsible for the creation of Israel.

  1. The Few Thesis:

Only a “few thousand” Jews lived in Palestine prior to H/H.

  1. The Arab Opposition (AO) Thesis:

The local Arab population only opposed Jewish migration when there were large numbers.

  1. The Zionist Ideology Minority Thesis (ZIM):

Only because of H/H, did Zionism become prominent in the diaspora.

  1. The Zionist Majority Thesis (ZM):

The shift from a minority to a majority position led to large scale migration to Palestine.

  1. The Creation Thesis:

Mass migration led to the creation of the State of Israel.

  1. The Conflict Thesis:

Mass migration led to the conflict with the Arabs.

Quite aside from the distortions of history, there are several contradictions among these claims. For example, there is the claim first that Hitler and the Holocaust (H/H) were responsible for the creation of Israel and, second, mass migration was responsible for the creation of the State of Israel. One might argue that this contradiction is only apparent since if H and H were responsible for mass migration, therefore mass migration was secondarily responsible for the creation of the State of Israel. However, a historical examination quickly reveals that they are disconnected; the distortion in making the connection is revealing. We can examine whether this initially apparent causal contradiction can be overcome by empirical evidence.

If mass migration was responsible for both the creation of the State of Israel and the conflict with the Arabs, if mass migration was a result of H/H, then that mass migration must have taken place after WWII and, therefore, both the creation of the State of Israel and the conflict with the Arabs emerged only after WWII. This provides a key timeline for Gregory’s thesis as a stand in for a great deal of religious and secular anti-Zionism and the key events leading to the creation of the State of Israel. I will get to this point in subsequent blogs, but this blog will focus on the first thesis.

The OJ thesis contends that among Orthodox Jews there was little support before the Holocaust. In our contemporary period, only a very small group of ultra-Orthodox Jews (Neturei Karta – Guardians of the City, originally, for a very short period, Chevrat HaChayim) maintain that the creation of Israel before the messiah arrives is a sin. The recapture by force of the Land of Israel is a violation of divine will. The members of Neturei Karta number less than 5,000; no more than two-three hundred, led by Rabbi Moshe Hirsch in Israel, partnered with Moshe Ber Beck in Monsey, New York, are active anti-Zionists. (Hirsch served in Arafat’s cabinet as Minister of Jewish Affairs.) What about the period before the Holocaust?

This sect is not rooted in Hasidism. Rather, its adherents follow the practices of the Gaon of Vilna and trace their roots to Lithuania and Hungary. Neturei Karta is a Litvish sect. Their arrival and resettlement in Jerusalem in the nineteenth century preceded the rise of Zionism. Rabbi Kook, a leading Orthodox rabbi, recognized that return to Israel was first promoted by disciples of the Gaon of Vilna. Nevertheless, very early on he endorsed political Zionism as a secular movement leaving it to the land to determine who was deserving of it.

The fundamental moral force hidden in [the Zionist movement] … is its motto, the entire nation. This nationalism proclaims… that it seeks to redeem the entire Jewish people. It does not concern itself with individuals or parties or sectors…. And with this perspective, it reaches out to the land of Israel and the love of Zion with a remarkable bravery and courage.

Most Orthodox rabbis at the time did not follow his lead. In 1937, Rabbi Amram Blau of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem, an activist in Agudat Israel (a political party of Orthodox Jews founded in Poland because of opposition to Zionism), left the latter movement because of its increasing rapprochement with secular Zionism. He was joined by Rabbi Aharon Katzenelbogen from New York. Together, they founded Neturei Karta in 1938. This clearly suggests that well before the Holocaust, only a tiny minority of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed Zionism in 1937.

This did not mean that in 1937, Agudat Israel became Zionist. Rather, it moved from the anti-Zionist camp to become non-Zionist. The roots of Orthodox anti-Zionism, as does ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism, go back to the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. In the late nineteenth century, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik was anti-Zionist. So was Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneerson of the Lubavitcher Hasidim. A number of prominent Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews were not simply hesitant about Zionism; they were strongly opposed to it at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1937, the Central Committee of Agudat Israel claimed an independent Jewish state would endanger Orthodox Jewry. It did not argue, as Neturei Karta did, that the return to Jerusalem had to await the messiah. Instead, it argued in terms of “pollution”; secular Zionism was a threat to Jews defined as a holy people. They offered to support the resurrection of the Jewish state only if its achievement was accompanied by Torah law becoming the foundation of the legal system in the state.

Agudath Israel in the Land of Israel rejects outright any attempt at despoiling the Land of Israel of its sanctity and considers the proposal to establish a secular Jewish state in Palestine as a hazard to the lofty role of the Jewish People as a holy nation. Agudath Israel in the Land of Israel declares that Orthodox Jewry could only agree to a Jewish state in all the Land of Israel if it were possible for the basic constitution of this state to guarantee Torah rule in the overall public and national life.

In the UN debate over partition, Agudat Israel urged the General Assembly to vote against partition. There is thus a thread of truth in the claim that Orthodox Jews, anti-Zionists and non-Zionists, opposed the creation of Israel and Zionism, even after 1937 and even during the UN vote for partition in November of 1947 after the Holocaust. With the creation of Israel, members of Agudat Israel became supporters of the government, but refused to take any seats in the cabinet lest the movement be perceived as pro-Zionist.

This has two implications. It means the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust did not convert this group of Orthodox Jews and the Hasidim to support Zionism. Secondly, if the followers of Hasidism and Agudat Israel constituted a majority of religiously practicing Orthodox Jewry, then Gregory would be correct about the OJ thesis even if incorrect about the H/H thesis. However, Ezra Mendelsohn in his essay, “Jewish Condition in Interwar East Central Europe” in the volume, The Vanishing World of Lithuanian Jews, noted that, “The vast majority of Lithuanian Jews, according to the census of 1923, identified themselves as Jews by nationality.” (81-82, my italics) It was in the 1920s and 1930s that Zionism was transformed into a political force, a force subsequently accelerated with the rise of Hitler. In spite of Agudat Israel and in spite of the anti-Zionist sentiments of Hasidism, the majority of Jews in Eastern Europe, led by the enlightened Orthodox leadership in Lithuania, supported Zionism. Even when Jewish socialists (Bundists) and communists were added to the mixture, supporters of Zionism possibly constituted the largest plurality amongst Jews in Eastern Europe.

In addition to Agudat Israel, most Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews were opposed to Zionism, and were opposed well after the creation of the state of Israel. Since 80% of Haredi Jews perished in the Holocaust, one might argue that this could imply that the majority of ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews opposed Zionism. That thesis seems to be reinforced when it is recognized that Ahavath Zion, a pro-Zionist Orthodox party, never made any inroads with the Hasidim. In the nineteen twenties, the party was also opposed by the majority of Orthodox leaders. However, it garnered a significant following among rabbis and the populace in smaller communities. By the time of the accession of Hitler to power in 1933, excluding the ultra-Orthodox, the majority of sentiment among the Orthodox community in Eastern Europe favoured Zionism.

What about the prominence of Zionism among Jews in North Africa and in the Muslim states of the Middle East? The immigration of Jews from Yemen in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and in 1911 preceded large-scale migration of Arab Jews to Palestine, though the majority would only arrive with Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-1950. The first evidence of Zionist activity in North Africa can be traced to Tunisia in 1902; Ahavat Zion was established there in 1913. About the same time, stirrings of Zionist activity began in Morocco. It is true that Zionism never became a majority movement among traditional practicing North African Jews until after WWII, and even then only after the creation of the State of Israel. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that in 1933, a majority of North African practicing Jews sympathized with Zionism, in spite of the fact that Zionism was a European ideology and almost all its leaders were of European origin. The shift to identification with, as distinct from sentiment for, Zionism may have begun with the Holocaust, but it only became reified with the creation of the State of Israel based on sentiments already widespread in 1933.

The same pattern was evident in the Middle East. In 1928, young Jews may have joined Maccabi sports organizations, but the Chief rabbi in Baghdad and the Jewish establishment opposed Zionism then. Even though sentiment among the masses began to shift in favour of Zionism, only a few thousand Iraqis migrated to Palestine in the 1930s under the auspices of the Jewish Agency. Many more came on their own. However, there is a record of an official shift even before the Holocaust in 1941-1942 before the Holocaust, though it took the Holocaust for the European leadership in Zionism to pay significant attention to Jews in the Middle East and then only with a condescending eye and “segregationist” policies, but that is another story.

What about Jews in America? Reform Judaism is the largest denomination in North America. They came very late to the table. Initially, Progressive Reform Judaism rejected Zionism as a nationalist ideology at odds with its ethical universalism. When they came around, it was not after the rise of Hitler. It was not after the Holocaust. It was not even immediately after the creation of the State of Israel. It was only after the sixties when the consciousness of the Holocaust became imprinted among Jews. Further, only in the Miami Platform of 1997 was this made official as Reform Judaism celebrated the rebirth of Am Israel, the Jewish people in Israel. But even then, it was conditional upon self-determination being exercised on universal principles of human rights, respect for minorities and preservation of democracy and the rule of law.

I have not even counted the Jews of the Soviet Union. It is not difficult to see that among worldwide Judaism, Zionism was indeed a minority movement among Jews in 1933. But so was Marxism. So was Bundism, secular socialism. So was Reform Judaism itself which was only predominant in North America. There was simply no majoritarian ideology then among Jews.  However, Zionism was not a small movement in the worldwide Jewish community in 1933. There is great deal of difference between not being a majority movement and being a small movement.

Further, Orthodox Jews in Europe opposed to Zionism in 1933 were not just hesitant in their support for Zionism. The establishment part of the Orthodox movement in 1933 was openly opposed. This was true of virtually all Hasidic sects. However, by 1933, among the Orthodox populace in Eastern Europe, a majority sentiment identified with Zionism, with many also supporting competing ideologies at the same time. Even then, although the establishment was still officially opposed, only a very small minority among them based opposition to Zionism on requiring the messiah to return as Gregory claimed.  Gregory was and remains wrong in each of the particulars of this thesis.

Gregory Baum – Israel’s creation depended on Hitler and the Holocaust

Corrupt History II – Gregory Baum on Pre-Independence Zionism

  1. The Hitler/Holocaust Thesis

by

Howard Adelman

Gregory Baum wrote, “If there had been no Hitler and no Auschwitz, Zionism would have remained a small movement.” In yesterday’s blog on Orthodox opposition and support for pre-independence Zionism, I pointed out a number of factors which suggest that, although Hitler, and to a minor extent, the Holocaust itself, had an impact on the creation of Israel, both were relatively minor factors with mixed effects, a position much against the widespread beliefs in both those critical of Zionism and its defenders, though not among most scholars.

One positive, if horrific fact, supporting the thesis is that 80% of the ultra-Orthodox – who strongly opposed secular political Zionism – were killed in the Holocaust. The slaughter of the Hasidim reduced a major source of diaspora opposition to Zionism and may even have increased the percentage of Jews supporting Zionism.  Of course, this is not generally what is meant when writers claim that without Hitler, there would have been no Israel. They really refer to enhancement of the motivations of Jews and guilt created by the Holocaust among bystanders. (“Understanding for Zionism and sympathy for its cause has waned in Western countries as the memory of the Holocaust has receded” – the Herzl Institute.) However, there is only miniscule evidence for this thesis. Nevertheless, the historical facts offer some data to suggest why the thesis could possibly be correct.

Though Ken Livingstone (Mayor of London 2000-2008) claimed that Hitler had supported Zionism, this is false news. However, there is a second argument that might suggest that Hitler enhanced the Zionist cause. On 25 August 1933, Nazi Germany and Zionist German Jews signed the very controversial Haavara (transfer) Agreement. The Anglo-Palestine Bank under the direction of the Jewish Agency had been part of the negotiations. Allowing German Jews to use a portion of their assets for Jewish businesses in Palestine to purchase German goods permitted German Jews, if they resettled in Palestine, to be compensated by those Palestine businesses. In six years between 1933 and 1939, Germany was able by this means to export about US$35,000,000 worth of goods. Jews who went to Palestine were able to recover about $US100 million of their assets. However, while a significant injection, this represented a very small part of the productivity in Palestine between 1933 and 1939. Far more than that was lost as a result of the 1936-1939 Palestinian uprising.

The deal also facilitated the migration of 60,000 Yekkes from Germany to Palestine under what today is known as an immigration investor program. Whatever the support for Zionism in Eastern Europe, among German Jews, there had been very little support in 1933 for Zionism. Their numbers represented about 2% of the German Jewish population and this is a significant source of the belief of Gregory Baum that Zionism was a small movement.

The Haavara Agreement strengthened Zionism on the ground in Palestine. However, it also set a precedent for breaching the anti-Nazi worldwide Jewish boycott imposed on Germany, a boycott instigated by the persecution of Jews with the firing of Jews from the government, the boycott of Jewish businesses, and the quotas imposed on Jewish enrolment in schools and universities. While the agreement led to the rescue of a significant number of Jews, it also created a deep chasm within the Zionist movement, a rift that some would argue seriously weakened it because of this schism. As Edwin Black wrote, “The Transfer Agreement tore the Jewish world apart, turning leader against leader, threatening rebellion and even assassination.” My interpretation is that the damage caused was more significant than the benefits, but it is a claim that is hard to make, for most of the 60,000 Jews might not have otherwise been saved.

Supporters of the H/H thesis also claim that Hitler and the Holocaust greatly increased the sympathy for Zionism. However, the reality was that the general antisemitism prevalent throughout Europe before Hitler even came to power had made Zionism a much stronger movement in Eastern Europe than most of its competitors even though it had an insignificant impact among German Jews. Zionism was NOT a small movement in 1933.

Further, the evidence seems to be clear that in 1933 there was already a movement among Orthodox Jews to support Zionism. This movement initially opposed  the community establishment and prominent rabbis that culminated in 1937 in Agudat Israel, an Orthodox political movement, formally shifting from an anti-Zionist to a non-Zionist position. On the other hand, even after Hitler, even after the Holocaust, Agudat Israel opposed the United Nations motion in November 1947 recommending partition and the creation of a Jewish state. If Hitler and the Holocaust had been so consequential in the creation of the State of Israel, then a major political party representing certainly the leadership in the Orthodox community would have shifted to support the creation of Israel. But they did not. So at least in this area, there is clear evidence that the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust had no major influence on Agudat Israel’s support for Israel.

One argument supporting the claim that without Hitler there would have been no Israel is based on the fact that WWII so weakened the British economy and military capacity after the war that Britain was unable to defeat the Zionist rebellion. On a broader scale, this position really credits Hitler for the dissolution of the British Empire, ignoring the worldwide forces behind the principle of self-determination quite independently of both Hitler and British power.

There is another argument that claims that the Holocaust benefitted Israel. As a result of the Holocaust, Germany paid Israel reparations and those reparations helped Israel to grow economically. But this happened after Israel was created and may indeed have played a role in ensuring the economic viability of the state. But it is not an argument supporting the claim that the Holocaust helped bring Israel into being. It is difficult to understand why the claim is so widely accepted that, “the Holocaust motivated large numbers of immigrants to move to Palestine” thereby creating a critical population mass. I will deal with this latter claim, namely that the Holocaust motivated large numbers of Jews to move to Palestine, in a separate blog on migration.

Further, roughly half the population of Israel came from Arab and other Middle East states. Their move to Palestine started before the Zionist movement developed tracks and mostly continued without formal Zionist help. But the really large movement came after the creation of the State of Israel. If Hitler and the Holocaust were the major sources for this movement, then the effort of Jews from Arab lands and other Middle East countries (Turkey, Iran) would have increased enormously after the war and put enormous pressure on the British attempt to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine. There was no significant pressure from Jews in Arab lands and in Iran and Turkey. The push came after the state was created, suggesting strongly that the creation of the state, for various reasons, stimulated the large migration from these sources. Migration pressure from this source did not result from the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust to influence the creation of Israel. Quite the reverse! The creation of the State of Israel instigated the mass migration.

Even within the major denomination of Jews in the New World, the sympathy for Zionism in Reform Jewry only took off well after WWII, well after the Holocaust. The latter two may have had an influence, but the evidence suggests that the Six Day War was really the turning point. The reason is that, in the build up towards that war, Jews who did not identify with Zionism identified with their fellow Jews under threat of annihilation and even feared that Israel would lose and the Jews would be slaughtered. Thus, solidarity with live Jews under threat acted as a much greater catalyst than the dead Jews murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust, though the Holocaust had begun to haunt world Jewry as well as the rest of the world. But by then, Israel was already nineteen years old.

What about the effects of the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust on the sympathies of non-Jews? Hitler rose to power in the 1930s. Was there any dramatic effort to stop Hitler from persecuting Jews? Were there strong government boycotts? Did countries open their borders to Jews in flight? If the rise of Hitler had such an impact, why was that impact not translated into some significant action then? There were a number of options available to countries which, at the very least, they could have considered.

During the Holocaust, and certainly afterwards, the West was chastised for not bombing the railroads transporting the Jews to the extermination camps. There is now ample evidence that those in positions of power knew about the transports. I happen to believe, based on my reading, that bombing the railroads leading to the camps by the West was not realistic since the fighter escort craft guarding the bombers would not have had enough fuel to get to places like Poland and back to Britain. But when I was reading documents in the British archives providing background for my research on Jewish refugees after WWII, I never read any evidence that there was a serious study of the alternatives available to interfere with the murder machine, quite aside from whether any of the alternatives was realistic.

Most significantly, immediately after the war, when the Anglo-American Committee visited the refugee camps in 1946, the concern was how to get rid of the refugees. Try to find any significant evidence of guilt over the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust influencing the decision to recommend that Britain allow the entry into Palestine of 100,000 Jews. If countries felt guilt about Hitler and the Holocaust, surely they would either have pressured Britain, a country on the economic ropes at the time, to change its policies and/or resettle the refugees. No significant pressure was applied. By 1947, the Jewish refugees collected in European camps totalled about 250,000.

When I read both the minutes of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine as well as the archival files and memoirs of some of the members, I could not find a hint of guilt about Hitler or the Holocaust, let alone some discussion of both. Instead, a very major concern was again the disposition of the refugees, by then increased to 250,000. I would argue that this problem, as well as the difficulties of any other solution, would lead both the Majority Report that recommended partition and the creation of a Jewish state, and the Minority Report recommending a federation, to see Palestine as a repository for the Jewish refugees.

In 1946, when a survey was undertaken of the Jewish refugees about where they wanted to resettle, the majority indicated Palestine. However, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that representatives of the Jewish Agency manipulated both the refugees and the vote to ensure that outcome. In 1946, though Zionism was certainly a significant movement by then, in spite of Hitler, in spite of the Holocaust, a majority of Jewish refugees did not prioritize Palestine as a place to resettle.

However, this changed by the time UNSCOP visited the camps in 1947. The numbers had more than doubled. But genuine support for Zionism in the camps was now almost overwhelming. Why? Neither Hitler nor the Holocaust held positions as intervening causes. The reason was the recognition that Jews still were unwanted by the nations of the world. Without Palestine, the Jews might remain warehoused in camps for years. They did not anticipate that the West would begin to unlock the gates, especially in North America.

In sum, the evidence suggests that both Hitler and the Holocaust were reasons why the pressures among Jewry decreased in Europe because there were far fewer Jews, both to oppose and to support Zionism. Hitler and the Holocaust did not give Zionism a boost, but severely undermined its efforts by slaughtering 95% of the populations from which it drew its main base of support.  There is no significant evidence that either the Holocaust – which in the 1940s was still little discussed outside legal circles – or Hitler enhanced the Zionist movement in any way. The dedication of Zionists to converting more of the Jewish masses to their cause, their efforts in diplomacy with nations from whom they could get potential support, the military preparations on the ground, and, most importantly of all, the effect of the military victory in the War of Independence after the state had been created, had the most profound influence on support for the nascent state both among Jews in the diaspora and among non-Jews.

Why then the myth that Zionism became a significant movement only because of Hitler and the Holocaust. After all, even Nahum Goldmann, once president of the World Jewish Congress, claimed that “without Auschwitz there would be no Israel.” I will try to answer that question by the time I finish reviewing the other six theses that Gregory Baum put forth. In the interim, the preponderance of evidence undermines the thesis that the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust provided Israel with the resources, the population, and the approval of other nations to come into existence and subsequently thrive.

Parashat Kedoshim – On Homosexuality

Parashat Kedoshim – On Homosexuality

by

Howard Adelman

I will return to my series on corrupt history and the misinterpretation of the history of Israel on Sunday. Today is Friday and I return to my practice of commenting on the weekly portion of the Torah. My commentary on a wayward way of reading Israeli history was instigated by my reading of Gregory Baum’s memoir, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway. So is today’s commentary on the Torah. In reading Gregory’s account of his religious journey, I learned he was gay.

I was surprised. I did not know this, even though others evidently did. Further, when Gregory was forced to leave the priesthood because of his theological position, he eventually married an ex-nun whom I knew reasonably well since she was a member of the so-called Catholic group made up of priests and nuns (soon enough, ex-priests and ex-nuns), and I was the only Jew in the group. I had believed that he had left the priesthood, or was forced out, because he could no longer find an archbishop to be his “sponsor”. The last one in Mexico had been contacted by the Vatican, he told me, and had been ordered to end his formal life in the Church. (I capitalize the word “Church” only when referring to the Catholic Church.) I thought the reason arose because of his theological political writings on liberation theology. In reading the memoir, I learned that the reason was his writing on sexual ethics, a reason which he had offered in a Globe and Mail newspaper piece at the time which I had not read.

In chapter 13 of his theological memoir, Gregory wrote about sexual ethics in general. He had always agreed with the Church’s denunciation of sex separated from love, especially the transformation of sexual relations into a commodity. In 1976, he wrote and published a critique of the Catholic position on human sexuality. As a result, Archbishop Philip Peacock felt obliged to withdraw his permission to preach in churches, the beginning of the cascade of withdrawals of support that would lead to his leaving his role as a priest in the Church and a member of a religious order.

Gregory had disagreed with the Church because he did not accept the rigidity of the Church’s position which applied rules universally without taking into account either cultural attitudes or individual circumstances. (See his volume, Religion and Alienation.) He had been influential at the Second Vatican in changing the attitude of the Church towards Jews, but not its objections to birth control and its insistence that sexual intercourse must always be open to conception since that was its purpose. Sexual satisfaction was simply a means to that end, though Pius XII in 1951 had come to accept the “rhythm method” of birth control, married couples having sex only when the female was infertile in her monthly cycle, thereby introducing a fundamental contradiction into Catholic teaching.

Gregory’s contrarian view was based on his conviction that the essence of the Gospel was the teaching that spousal love had to be love between equals based on mutual respect and tenderness, and a rejection of one individual controlling the other versus the traditional teaching that marriage was based on the husband’s right to his wife’s “body” (jus in corpus). Eventually, he added two other criteria – concern for the good of the partner (did the relationship foster self-realization?)  and critical attention to the impact on the soul. In the Second Vatican Council, the doctrine of mutual love was raised to an aspiration on the same level as procreation. However, as long as procreation remained the prime goal of both sex and marriage, then homosexual love could receive no endorsement. But neither did the Church accept the majority recommendation of its own broadly-based commission that couples should be free to determine the number of children they wanted and the means to control that goal.

Even Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would eventually become Pope Benedict XVI, had accepted that a position based on a conception of “natural law” had to be abandoned because human nature could not be defined metaphysically as a basis for deriving ethical norms. Instead, Gregory had adopted the proposition pioneered by another dissident Catholic that the Church had historically defined sex in negative terms and that the premise had to be acceptance of sexuality as a means of striving for human happiness.

In his 1974 article, in addition to arguing that sexual norms are rooted in culture rather than in any universal understanding of human nature in which homosexual love is branded as “unnatural,” he also argued that the Church treated homosexuals the same way it treated Jews, despising and persecuting them based on a culture of contempt. Instead, homosexuality was no more sinister than being left-handed. Homosexual love is simply a different gift from God. Pope Francis in 2013 embraced that view: “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and his good will, who am I to judge that person.”

In this week’s portion in chapter 18 and 20, we read:

ויקרא יח:כב וְאֶת זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה הִוא. Lev 18:22 Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.
ויקרא כ:יג  וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת זָכָר מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה עָשׂוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם מוֹת יוּמָתוּ דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם. Lev 20:13 If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death – their bloodguilt is upon them.

Note, there is no prohibition of lesbian love, only male homosexuality. Only male homosexuality is a toevah, an abhorrence. The passages are not excised. We read them with reverence. Yet the vast majority of Jews, including many ultraorthodox Jews, no longer regard homosexuality as an abhorrence and certainly do not punish gays by killing them. How is the shift justified?

It is not largely done by developing a more comprehensive philosophical ethical framework whereby homosexuality can be embraced and even accepted. The shift is accomplished through hermeneutics, through learning to read the text in a different way. (For two scholarly accounts that undertake this effort, see Rabbi David Frankel, “Male Homosexual Intercourse Is Prohibited – In One Part of the Torah,” and Dr. Shawna Dolansky, “Regarding Azazel and Homosexuals in the same Parasha.”) The principle that Gregory put forth, of cultural relativity, has been an integral part of hermeneutics in the tradition of interpreting Torah. Thus, one method is to read the text as one rooted in a society that had to protect the priority of reproduction, not because of a statement about sexual purposes, but in terms of the survival of the nation in its demographic battles with its enemies.

A second qualification is geographic – the prohibition only applied to those living in the Holy Land lest it be corrupted. This turns out to be a very unsatisfactory reading given that one of the most thriving homosexual communities in the world can be found in Tel Aviv.

A third does so by reading the text in context, in the wider concern still accepted of prohibiting incestual sexual relations. Since lying with a woman who is your sister or your mother is forbidden, so lying with a man who is your brother or your father is forbidden. That is, only those homosexual relations that imitate heterosexual relations that are forbidden are prohibited. It is merely an application of the prohibition against incest. This reading is certainly a stretch, but its importance is that these different methods of reading texts are ways of preserving Torah as a reference point without either surrendering to literalness or, on the other hand, abandoning Torah as a teaching tool.

For example, another way of reading the text in context is not to read it in terms of the circumstances that gave rise to the prohibitions against incest, but in the context of prohibitions against using sex as a vehicle for asserting a power relation, equivalent to Gregory’s insistence on the mutuality that must be inherent in sexual relations. Thus, as Rabbi Steven Greenberg has written, the phrase of a man “lying with a woman” is metaphorical. It means that sexual relations in which one partner is viewed as more powerful than the other and the sex is being used to demonstrate that power, that type of sexual behaviour is prohibited. Thus, homosexual love is only an abomination when it is used to demonstrate the power of one individual over another.

A third variation of reading the text in context that is even a greater stretch is to suggest that the text refers to sex with multiple partners whereby two men are lying with same woman. That is, do not lie with a man when lying with a woman. That is the abomination.

Since the nineteenth century, with the application of the critical reading of the whole Torah in a cultural context that recognized that the text is a compilation of readings developed at different times in the history of the Jewish people, a more critical reading insists that some of the above methods of textual interpretations are abominations in hermeneutics and simply exercises in sophistry. Instead, when it is recognized that biblical text is itself culturally rooted, when it is recognized that different parts of the Torah contradict other parts because they were developed in different historical periods and different contexts, then a search in the rest of the biblical narrative reveals a shocking absence of any other repetitions of this prohibition. Further, if it is accepted that one book, such as Deuteronomy, is more definitive than another, then the Deuteronomic code can be read as setting aside some prohibitions in Leviticus. Unfortunately, within Leviticus there is a similar claim to superiority. (26:46 and 27:34) So how do we adjudicate among competing texts?

One way is to accept what is common to them all – such as prohibitions on sexual congress with animals. Further, when there seems to be an implicit endorsement of homosexual love between, say David and Jonathan (Samuel 1:26), this would seem to acknowledge Gregory’s stress on the positive nature of a homosexual relationship when and only if it is based on mutual love and respect and a striving for self-realization. Any attempt to reconcile such irreconcilable positions, as when the Catholic Church tried to insist that “natural law” was the universal basis for determination, any effort to force the Torah text into a single coherent teaching in conduct, ends up in self-contradiction and stains textual reading rather than enhances it.

If we return to Gregory’s position that such prohibitions must be read as an expression of a culture at a specific time, why would this not lead to relativism and selective reading of Torah text in terms of our dominant culture in the present? On the other hand, why don’t we just say that the teaching in Leviticus is stupid? Both responses demonstrate a disrespect for the past. Instead, the contradictions must be read respectfully and with empathy without avoiding our responsibility to adjudicate among differences and make responsible choices. This is not “anything goes.” Further, text is elevated when it must be studied to ascertain its meaning and relevance and without producing a totally novel framework equivalent to the magic of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

An Ottawa scholar, Shawna Dolansky, makes that effort by using two texts on different but related matters rather than on the same issue. She reads the texts on scapegoating and prohibitions of homosexuality side-by-side to adjudicate between change and continuity and the conviction that any text is rooted in a specific culture. Thus, the ritual of scapegoating, referred to also in this week’s portion, was used by the Catholic Church for nefarious purposes to degrade Jews. The irony was the very text which used displacement as a healthy method of dealing with problems was used inversely to portray Jews in the imagery of a goat sucking the life out of Christianity.  It is one thing for a community to voluntarily and ritually assume responsibility for the transgressions of an individual. It is a very different matter for one community to transfer responsibility and blame to degrade another group.

The most famous example of this is the antisemitic pig (much more lowly than a goat in biblical terms) on the wall of the very same church in Wittenberg where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door, an action widely accepted as instigating the Protestant Reformation. The reproduction can be seen on: https://stevehickey.wordpress.com/2009/07/24/the-anti-semitic-pig-in-wittenberg/) The relief shows a rabbi looking into the ass of a pig and Jewish children sucking on the pig’s teats. Antisemitism, especially as expressed by Martin Luther, depicted Jews as engaged in an abomination with a pig.

If one reads the prohibitions against bestiality or the positive ritual using two goats as a purification offering alongside those against homosexuality, both negative and positive portrayals presume that sin is like the spot in Act 5, Scene I of Macbeth when Lady Macbeth hysterically tries to wash her hands and insist, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” Sins either adhere to the sinner mercilessly or are only displaced by being shifted to a scapegoat; sins can never be exorcised. This was and, in part remains, a very deep-seated cultural belief.

This form of purgation (kippur) was excised from Jewish ritual, not the need to engage in purgation and the transfer of impurities, but the specific method. In the new theology, the issue became not simply the removal of contamination from the sanctuary, but the demonstration of remorse through contrition and self-denial, confession and abstinence from food.

If the prohibition of sexual congress between males is both understood in context, then one reading as described above is the injunction against a male treating another male as a female. The injunction opposed treating a superior or an equal as inferior, to “feminizing” another male. Therefore, as Gregory read the commandment, the problem was not sex but power, not mutual respect between two males engaged in sex, but the use of sex by one man to degrade another. In that sense, sexual congress with an inferior male was permitted in that culture, but no homosexual act should be prohibited in our egalitarian culture except when such acts entail exploiting another. Leviticus made the prohibition universal because there was no conception of equality of status between males. All male relationships were then hierarchical.

When relationships change, when, more importantly, the conception of relationship changes, so must the practices, both those encouraged and those that abhorred. The importance is not the discarding of prohibitions against sexual homosexual intercourse – an action I consider obvious – but the differences between the methods used to discard such prohibitions. Gregory proposed doing so by developing a “higher” moral code and conception of human relations rooted in the Gospel of love and revising prohibitions in terms of that, while Jewish commentators do it through hermeneutics, through different methods of reading text out of which new moral codes and practices are developed and reified.

Thus, Christians and Jews can reach the same place, but by following very different paths.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman