Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water: Parashat Nitzavim Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20

In the recent election in Israel, the people of Israel, both Jewish and Arab, from all genders and all classes, stood before their Maker and cast their votes for who should rule on their behalf. In the imminent election in Canada that is just a little over three weeks away, the people of Canada, both English and French, from all genders and all classes, will stand before their Maker and cast their votes for who should rule on their behalf. In the election just a bit more than thirteen months away in the United States of America, the American people, black, white, Asian and Latino, from all genders and all classes, want to be able to stand before their Maker to make a free choice for who should rule on their behalf.

However, before they can do this, they face a crisis with their current leader. For he went beyond the sea, across the sea for assistance to bring ignominy on a leading fellow citizen. He used pressure to do so. He, or his minions, also tried to cover it up.

For the Constitution which binds them together, the Constitution to which the president bound himself when he accepted the obligations of that high office, is now before them all once again to see if those citizens want to renew their vows, to join themselves once again with the covenant they made with one another and before their Maker. For that is the only way, when there is a constitutional crisis, that the members of a people can renew their vows. Without such a renewal, the Constitution, the covenant that binds them together to constitute them as a people, becomes but a tiger made of papier-mâché.

In other words, it is not only the president that will be on trial. It will be the American people, not only all the political leaders – congressmen and senators, judges and prosecutors – but every citizen in America, including, and especially, those who carry out the most menial of duties, the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. All, every American, is now responsible for renewing his or her vows to uphold the Constitution.

In America, the hewers of wood and drawers of water are not a caste destined forever to serve in menial roles. These jobs are not assigned to them because they crossed the border and claimed, perhaps falsely, to be persecuted. People that desire to be one with America and its people shall not remain problematic. Rather, they are symbols that the lowest must join the highest to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the land. Without them, there can be no democratic polity. And the highest in turn must prostrate themselves as low as possible before the demands of the Constitution. For the Constitution is an instrument of inclusiveness not divisiveness. When one goes, not bowed at the waist, not merely on bended knee, but spread across the floor, one does so by becoming a hewer of wood who trims his or her own branches of arrogance and self-righteousness, who becomes the drawer of water to those who have been parched and dried out by following their leader in a moral desert.

In order to excise the idol, one must cut oneself down to size. In order to excise the idol, one must bring, not remonstrations, but drinks for the souls of those who have so long been parched. Only when the pruning and the watering come together, can future growth be resumed.

The people must look back to the covenant, to that Constitution, to its terms, to its rights and to its responsibilities, in order to guide them out of the wilderness in which they now find themselves. Their moral wealth must be revived and restored. For the president solemnly swore or affirmed that he would, “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,” and would to the best of his ability, “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” He did not.

However, the instruction to uphold the Constitution is not simply the responsibility of the president but of every member of the polity. Each is enjoined to uphold the law when the matter before the people is not baffling but put before them with clarity and concision. The interpretation of what is at issue does not require sophistication. Rather, it is very close to every American, close to their mouths that have made those vows and to their hearts that have pledged allegiance to the Constitution.

If they do not regain that faith in the lifeblood of their constitutional being, America as the democratic leader of the free world will die. But if that renewal is made in this time of crisis, America as a leading moral light in the world will once again burn brightly, have long life and endure upon the soil of America on which American citizens have a custodial role.

And if they do not? If they forsake their vows and their Constitution, disaster awaits. If they betray their founding fathers, if they turn to defend narcissistic idolatry based on manipulation, dishonesty and resentment, if they worship a false god, then the wrath of the world and their Maker will wreck vengeance on sinners and do-gooders alike. The American polity will sink into an abyss. The land that has been so blessed will become cursed. If the American people do not listen, if they fail to heed all the warning signs, if they close their hearts off from the words of their own Constitution, then America as a light unto the nations will perish.

Section 3 of Article Two of that Constitution includes The Take Care Clause that requires the president to obey and enforce all laws, though he has some interpretive discretion with respect to enforcement. Section 4 of Article Two establishes that the president and other officers can be removed from office through the impeachment process, which is further described in Article One. Impeachment is the analogous process to an indictment by a grand jury that is handled by the House of Representatives. The trial itself is conducted by the Senate.

Grounds for impeachment include:

(1) improperly exceeding or abusing the powers of the office;

(2) behaviour incompatible with the function and purpose of the office; and

(3) misusing the office for an improper purpose or for personal gain.

The action does not have to be criminal. An impeachable offence is an abuse or violation of public trust. It is a breach of faith. When there is a breach of faith, it is an assault on the Constitution itself. The more important offence is NOT the impeachable offence itself, but the excusing of such offences that are driven by feelings of resentment and bitterness. For in implicitly endorsing such offences by failing to confront these failures of faith in the Constitution, those members of society become infused with “gall and wormwood.” Instead of a democratic polity, there is a danger of the politics of resentment superseding it.  

Let not arrogance, let not overconfidence, let not a desire to separate oneself from the well-being of the community as a whole, including those who heretofore have followed an idol and false god, an idol who considers himself immune from sanctions, an idol who could declare that he could shoot someone in cold blood on Fifth Avenue and still not be punished by the people, let not the righteous desert the fallen and followers of the sinner, for Americans are in this together. They must separate themselves from the hubris of a leader who imagines and acts as if he is above and apart from everyone else, above the law and apart from the Constitution and the polity created by that Constitution. Their polity survives or falls with how they handle this crisis. The theme must be reiterated – the whole community has a responsibility to uphold the Constitution.

When a citizen, when the leader of those citizens, turns to a foreign entity to assist in winning to become the choice of the people, when a significant portion of those people also forsake their faith in their own Constitution and its principles, when both the leader and his followers fail to listen, when they walk “in stubbornness,” they bring disaster, not only on their own shrivelled and dried out hearts, but also on the bleeding hearts who cry for the cost and loss to the democratic polity. And the moist are swept away with the dry. Democracy dies. No one is a winner.

The bleeding hearts must also bleed for those who have been duped. They cannot imitate their idol and adopt the arrogance of, “I told you so.” Self-righteousness has no place in defending the Constitution. Superiority and self-importance must be cast aside and the process followed with all due humility. No pounding of chests to demonstrate pride in not having become a lemming. Rather pounding of one’s own chest to rid within oneself of the self-importance, the arrogance, the self-aggrandizement of he who would be Lord.

29:19 the LORD will not be willing to pardon him, but then the anger of the LORD and His jealousy shall be kindled against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and the LORD shall blot out his name from under heaven.

The only solution: lance the source of evil. The leader of this self-idolatry and self-serving must be impeached, must be cursed, and his name must be blotted out from under heaven. He shall be separated out and driven out of office according to the curses demanded by his vows, by the covenant into which he entered to uphold the Constitution as written in the book of law. Unless that happens, the polity will disintegrate, it will become dysfunctional and it will become subject to the interventions of foreign forces. At the very worst, the same leaders that tried to close off the land and its society from welcoming strangers will themselves be cast as refugees in another land.

This is what happens when the supreme source of all law is blatantly betrayed and when the leadership fails to live up to the specific words of the law. This is what happens when a portion of the polity is smitten by such a leader. This is what happens when those who escape such hypnotism fail themselves to get rid of any sense of self-importance in their own hearts, who fail themselves to bow and come not simply on bended knees before the Constitution but prostrate before the book of laws in engaging in the process of excision. The bleeding heart must now not only bow before the Constitution but prostrate him or herself before it. It is insufficient at this point in the crisis to merely bow at the waist. Those in the right must lower themselves entirely to make common cause with those who have been betrayed and misled the most. Only then can humility and hubris reengage to once again give life to the Constitution. Each must individually become small so that the whole community can once again become large, become once again a moral force for good in the world.

Americans must return to their constitutional faith. They must listen to its ordinances and its demands. They must come to understand what it means to commit high crimes and misdemeanours. Americans must become great again – not so much as an economic and military power, but as a moral leader and witness before the whole world. They must renew their pledge to the Constitution to keep its commandments and statutes that are written in the book of the law.  



A Follow-Up Analysis of the Israeli September 2019 Election

On the morning after, I published my immediate responses to the Israeli election results. That blog has subsequently been edited, the figures updated, some new observations included and has been posted on my web site (howardadelman.com) on WordPress. I now want to offer a more detailed analysis, beginning with my notes from the end of my initial blog on the election. Contrary to most commentators who insist that the results are not much different than in April, I argue that they are a game changer.

Clearly, the biggest winner emerging from the election is Avigdor Lieberman, head of Israel Beiteinu and former Defence Minister. He not only blocked Netanyahu from forming a government following the April election, but increased his representation from 5 to 8 seats in this election and is now clearly poised to become the kingmaker in the new government, even though his security and defense policies are not congruent with those of Blue and White. Lieberman took a significant risk in taking down Bibi, who enjoys considerable popularity on the right. However, in so doing, he enhanced his base by promoting a national unity as well as secular government that would exclude the religious parties. Lieberman gained the votes of rightists who were tired of Netanyahu or of alliances with the ultra-Orthodox, or both.

However, since the results were formally announced, Lieberman indicated that he would be willing to sit with Haredi lawmakers – but only on condition that the government back a series of proposals which religious MKs have long opposed, especially passage of the Haredi draft law unamended, but also permitting the passage of legislation permitting civil marriages, requiring the Haredi schools to teach the secular curriculum, changes to the conversion system in Israel, opening minimarts and permitting public transportation on shabat in towns with a significant non-ultra-orthodox presence, and the expansion of an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In other words, “I will join with you in a coalition if you surrender on all the platforms you hold dear.” Highly unlikely to happen, though it is notable that those parties have stopped referring to Lieberman as Amalek.

Either way, if his gambit works, next to Netanyahu, the religious parties may be the biggest losers and Likud may become not only eventually free of Netanyahu, but of its dependence on those religious parties. Netanyahu has had to repeatedly reiterate that, “we are in this together. I will not abandon you.” But Likud might. Further, Netanyahu’s blasting at the “left” during the election campaign was clearly misdirected. Bibi seemed to have lost control of his political artillery for it was not aimed at the greatest danger to him. Instead of screaming that Arabs are voting in droves to drive his right-wing voters to the polls, he upped the ante and laid unsupported charges of Arab voter fraud, which many if not most of his own supporters viewed as a political sham.

When politics can no longer be painted as black and white, Netanyahu emerged as a loser. Further, he miscued when he tried to buy the support of the Libertarian Zehut by promising its leader, Moshe Feiglin, a ministerial position and offering to support the legalization of medicinal marijuana. There is little indication that he won anything significant by that move. To the contrary, he emerged as desperate and willing to make any deal to stay in power. Finally, his desperation was on full display when he blatantly violated laws against broadcast interviews and also published polling figures on Election Day.  

Three different majorities were produced by the election. There’s a definite majority against Netanyahu remaining in power. There’s a clear majority for a secular coalition, without the clerical parties. And there’s also a right-wing majority. The Blue and White Party is an amalgam of Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience (including the Telem faction headed by Moshe Ya’alon) and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Though Blue and White is committed to pursuing a two-state solution and continuing negotiations with the Palestinians, the party also ran on a platform of continued settlement growth and permanent control (but not an extension of sovereignty, let alone annexation) over a large part of the West Bank along the Jordan River.

The party campaign also included a promise not to include the ultra-Orthodox parties in any coalition. More positively, it advocated the realization of the right of every person and community to shape their way of life and future. Freedom and tolerance were bywords in the party platform which also promised to pass legislation permitting same-sex civil unions, surrogacy by same-sex couples and expand the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall to be administered by non-Orthodox Jewish leaders. The party supported initiatives blocked by the ultra-Orthodox, such as public transportation on Shabbat and canceling the “mini-market law” prohibiting certain commerce on the Sabbath. As stated above, this was also Lieberman’s explicit goal, which also included ending the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce. It is an ambition that would be supported by the two small leftist parties as well as the Joint List. That alone could be the basis for a coalition sufficient to produce a majority government with 65 seats in the Knesset.

The Joint List is not strictly speaking an Arab Joint List since it includes a Jewish member of the Knesset from the socialist Hadash Party. The three other parties included in the Joint List are the exclusively Arab Ta’al, the Islamist Ra’am and the nationalist Balad, the last anathema to Jewish leaders such as Yair Lapid. However, the four parties are united on defining Arab Israelis as the indigenous inhabitants of Israel (a non-starter for Blue and White), their recognition as a national minority with collective cultural, educational and religious rights (negotiable) and in opposition to land expropriation and home demolitions, a position conditionally acceptable to Blue and White. The Joint List will insist that action be taken to rescind or severely amend the nation-state law. The Joint List also aspires to have a democratic constitution based on the principles of justice, equality and human rights.

The Joint List also supports ending Israel’s military rule over the disenfranchised Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, ending the blockade of Gaza, establishing an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, dismantling of all settlements and the security barrier, freeing all “political prisoners” and achieving a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee issue that ensures Palestinian refugees have the ability to return to lands now a part of Israel. Not a single one of these election goals is acceptable to Blue and White for the party not only supports the status quo and a “united” Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but also continued Israeli control over the Jordan Valley, retaining settlement blocs in the West Bank, but willing to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, on the domestic front, during the election, Gantz plastered Arab towns with campaign posters and appeared on Arabic language television, appealing to Arab voters by upholding equality of rights as an abstraction and the rule of law as a fundamental principle. It is not clear how Gantz will handle the issue of expropriation and demolition of homes, but I would bet that he would be negotiable on this in dealing with the Joint List.

Blue and White, however, is uncompromising in making security a prime platform, with IDF freedom of action anywhere, though it supports convening a regional conference with the Arab countries to advance a peace deal with the Palestinians. Lieberman is even more hawkish since he deplored the November ceasefire with Hamas. He would end the payments to Hamas as well. He dubbed that caving into terrorism and abandoning the Israeli citizens in the south. Instead, he advocates the death penalty for “terrorists,” destruction of their homes and the expulsion of their families.  

On defence policy, Yamina is equally hawkish. Before the April election, former Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, then his number 2, split away from the national religious party to cater to secular right-wingers. The gambit did not work and their party failed to pass the minimum threshold. Their political careers were saved by the failure to form a government following the April election.

At the same time, Rafi Peretz, who inherited the leadership of the Home Party, merged with Bezalel Smotrich’s hardline National Union and then with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party and got 5 seats in April, but the risk of a repeat in September was too high and the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URWP) joined with the New Right in a marriage of convenience under Shaked to ensure they passed the minimum threshold without the burden of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit, which did not pass the minimum threshold. Shaked, though leader, is but one of the two secular candidates in the first 13 spots on the slate. The marriage of convenience lasted only until the votes were counted. Shaked is now positioning herself to replace Netanyahu as leader of the Right.

Only one Jewish party, the only declared socialist party, and it has only 5 seats, supports a separate Palestinian state. The Democratic Union, led by Nitzan Horowitz, is a merger of Meretz, former prime minister Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party (who, in 10th position, did not get a seat) and Labor deserter, Stav Shaffir. That party calls for immediate negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and, in the interim, loosening restrictions on both the Gaza Strip and Palestinians in the West Bank. It is very revealing that a realistic two-state solution is only supported by a very small minority of Israeli Jews. The Democratic Union, as secular and egalitarian, could be part of a coalition, but without any responsibility for or even involvement in decisions with respect to the West Bank and Gaza. Would the party be willing to accept being part of a coalition on such terms just to see Netanyahu out of office?  

What about Labor-Gesher made up of Labor, led by Amir Peretz, a former socialist party, and Gesher, led by Orly Levy-Abekasis? It did not pass the minimum in April to be given seats? It still has a strong economic egalitarian program for wealth distribution (minimum wages, new public housing, free education, increased pensions paid for by increased taxes on higher earners), opposes special budgets for West Bank settlers, but otherwise is not hawkish concerning a two-state solution acceptable to the Palestinians.

Could the two Jewish religious parties bend in order to be included in a coalition given the likely policies contrary to what they stand for? Perhaps if the coalition protected United Torah Judaism’s chief, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, from standing trial for bribery and aiding an alleged pedophile, Litzman might compromise to enter a coalition with his 8 seats. But that is unlikely on a number of counts, particularly since Blue and White ran on a rule of law platform.

Shas, led by Aryeh Deri, has 9 seats and has had a history of being more flexible provided its core interests were served. But Deri too is under investigation for corruption and had been previously imprisoned for bribery. Given the demands for secularization and the prospect of charges, the party is unlikely to be part of a coalition led by Gantz.  

What seems complicated, with a multiplicity of possibilities about the formation of the new government, is much simpler upon analysis and boils down to two main options. In one, Gantz will lead a centrist-right government that includes Lieberman and Likud without Netanyahu as leader. It would have about 72 seats. Alternatively, there are two variations. Gantz could form a centre-left party with respect to domestic issues, supported by both the Democratic Union and Labor-Gesher. The government would include Lieberman on the right who would be awarded an important ministry like Defence. However, this coalition would only have 52 seats. It would need the support of the Joint List.  The two variations are its inclusion in government or an agreement to support the government for say two years under specific conditions.

Lieberman and Gantz, as well as even the Joint List, prefer a unity government. The Joint List would then not have to support the government. More important, Ayman Odeh would become Leader of the Opposition, a formal position with cabinet rank. He would be entitled to be updated at least once per month on security and domestic policies. Odeh would also be formally included in all ceremonies. That might really rankle the explicitly anti-Arab Jewish parties and might be sufficient reason for Likud members to remain reunited behind Netanyahu, especially given Bibi’s grip on the party and determination not to be convicted. My own conviction is, that although this is the preferred solution among the winners in the election, it is unlikely in the short run. More likely is a Gantz-led centrist-left domestic government and centrist-right government on Palestinian and foreign policy, with an agreement that the Joint List will not support a vote of no-confidence – under specific conditions (such as removing Netanyahu laws meant to suppress dissent) – for about two years. Whatever variation, Israeli Palestinians will, for the first time, exercise a degree of power. A more inclusive Israel is on the horizon.

In my next blog on proportionate government, I will weigh the merits and demerits of the system and review the roles and success rates for those parties that did not meet the minimal threshold. There are over twenty of them.

Appendix Reprint

At 2:37 Friday morning Israeli time, the Central Election Committee (CEC) announced the “almost final” results of the 17 September 2019 election…Over 4,431,000 votes were cast and over 99% of the votes counted. The turnout was 69.7%. The electoral threshold for a party to win seats was 3.25% of the votes cast.

Party Seats % Party Seats %
Kahol Lavan 33 25.93 Likud 31 25.09
Joint List 13 10.62 Shas   9   7.44
Labor-Gesher   6   4.80 United Torah Judaism   8   6.06
Democratic Union   5   4.34 Yamina   7   5.88
Total 57 45.69       55 44.47
Yisrael Beiteinu   8   6.99 Votes for other parties   0   2.85
  65 52.68     100.0

A Vow and a Covenant: Parashat Ki Tavo – Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Wow!!! Read this Parashat with fresh eyes. What a deal the Israelites made with their God! It has all the power of Ecclesiastes. But to understand that deal it is helpful, indeed necessary, to go back to several verses in the previous Parashat on vows in chapter 23 that we actually worked on in last week’s Torah study group.

כב  כִּי-תִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לֹא תְאַחֵר לְשַׁלְּמוֹ:  כִּי-דָרֹשׁ יִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מֵעִמָּךְ, וְהָיָה בְךָ, חֵטְא.
22 When thou shalt vow a vow unto the LORD thy God, thou shalt not be slack to pay it; for the LORD thy God will surely require it of thee; and it will be sin in thee.
כג  וְכִי תֶחְדַּל, לִנְדֹּר–לֹא-יִהְיֶה בְךָ, חֵטְא. 23 But if thou shalt forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in thee.
כד  מוֹצָא שְׂפָתֶיךָ, תִּשְׁמֹר וְעָשִׂיתָ:  כַּאֲשֶׁר נָדַרְתָּ לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, נְדָבָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ, בְּפִיךָ.  {ס} 24 That which is gone out of thy lips thou shalt observe and do; according as thou hast vowed freely unto the LORD thy God, even that which thou hast promised with thy mouth. {S}

Vowing is a totally voluntary act. There can be no coercion forcing anyone to take a vow. A vow must be uttered, must be mouthed. It is an action and not simply a clause in a contract. The vow is one made “unto the Lord thy God,” that is, either directly to God or “as God is my witness.” The vow of marriage could be made just to one’s betrothed, but it could also be a divine vow, one made in the presence of God. Further, if one makes a vow unto God, and it is kept, there is a reciprocal vow by God, a collective one to cherish the people He has chosen. A vow consecrates a marriage made between God and the Jewish people.

In a commentary on 5 September 2017, for whom this passage summarized the whole of the Tanakh, Rabbi Sacks wrote:

The English translation, above, is that of the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh. Any translation, however, tends to conceal the difficulty in the key verb in both sentences: le-ha’amir. What is strange is that, on the one hand, it is a form of one of the most common of all biblical verbs, lomar, “to say”. On the other, the specific form used here – the hiphil, or causative form – is unique. Nowhere else does it appear in this form in the Bible, and its meaning is, as a result, obscure.

The JPS translation reads it as “affirmed”. Aryeh Kaplan, in The Living Torah, reads it as “declared allegiance to”. Robert Alter renders it: “proclaimed”. Other interpretations include “separated to yourself” (Rashi), “chosen” (Septuagint), “recognised” (Saadia Gaon), “raised” (Radak, Sforno), “betrothed” (Malbim), “given fame to” (Ibn Janach), “exchanged everything else for” (Chizkuni), “accepted the uniqueness of” (Rashi to Chagigah 3a), or “caused God to declare” (Judah Halevi, cited by Ibn Ezra.

So what does he really mean to make a vow before God? What happens when we make a bond with God or between two human beings before God, a vow that is stated orally and one which preserves the power of an oral culture as it transitions to a literate one in an act which itself engages in the transition from a shame to a guilt (or sin) culture?  

We create a new world just as God brought the world into being with His words. A vow does not depict. A vow does not classify as in Adam’s first assignment. A vow does not determine merit. A vow is not the expression of a feeling. A vow is not simply a connector – “Hello.” A vow does not praise or blame. A vow is certainly not a critique. Nor is it an order. Neither is a vow either a scientific hypothesis or, on the other hand, an extension of our imagination as in poetry, though poetry may be used to capture the essence of a vow. A vow is an oral statement that creates a new world. It is an illocutionary act. It does not describe a fact but creates one.

But a vow is not simply a promise or a pledge, unilateral or reciprocal, each in itself an illocutionary act. A vow creates a covenant and not just an oral contract. Contracts can be broken and, if broken, the breach carries consequences. In that, promises are similar to vows. But a contract once made is fixed. While a vow is only kept alive through repetition, through recommitment in each moment of daily practice. Ironically, a vow, which is far more profound than a promise, is also more ephemeral. It has no life without renewed commitment.

Precisely because vows are dependent on repetition, they are not dogmas. They are not absolutes. They are not matters of blind faith. Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof is full of doubt and questioning. He lives in a time of great uncertainty. But the vow has allowed empathy and compassion to enter into the world and become an integral part of relationships.

What is the nature of that new world created by the vow? It establishes a moral relationship, a relationship that depends on mutual respect rather than an exchange of rewards. Slavery is founded on coercion. The relationship forged by a vow creates a bond between a bondsperson and a Lord that has neither a component of coercion nor a transactional quality. Most importantly, the relations established by a vow are not time bound. They continue endlessly but, ironically, only continue if there is a moment-to-moment recommitment through one’s actions.

As Jonathan Sacks wrote, “Judaism is a covenant, a marriage between God and a people” in which each party must continually renew that vow. To do that, to heed what is said in a vow, it is incumbent that one listen, that one listen and hear. Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof talks to God. He does not need to request a hearing. But he has to strain to hear the words of his God. And God must open up to him in turn. “And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression.” (26:7) In return, we vow with our whole heart and soul to walk in the ways of God and keep His laws and, thereby, become a holy people.

ט  וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה וְהַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם, אֶל כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר:  הַסְכֵּת וּשְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִהְיֵיתָ לְעָם, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. 9 And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke unto all Israel, saying: ‘Keep silence, and hear, O Israel; this day thou art become a people unto the LORD thy God.
י  וְשָׁמַעְתָּ, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת-מִצְוֺתָו וְאֶת-חֻקָּיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם.  {ס} 10 Thou shalt therefore hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and do His commandments and His statutes, which I command thee this day.’ {S}

Hear. Hearken to the voice. Listen. And note the consequences – the curses, the blessings, and the curses again and again. So many!  “And all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue thee, and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed; because thou didst not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which He commanded thee.” (28:45) On the other hand, “And all these blessings shall come upon thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God.” (28:2) Curses or blessings overtake you, take over your life.

But were vows not voluntary? Why the commandments? Were vows not made without reference to rewards and punishments? Why the long list of horrific consequences, every plague and every sickness, every humiliation and every form of slavery and psychological depression, and, worst of all, exile and becoming scattered throughout the world for not keeping one’s vows?

But if kept? If you know and keep the vow deep in your heart, if you look and listen, prosperity and the good life both lay ahead. But the reason for the blessing is not as a result of keeping the vow, but is a sign that the vow is being kept by you. The vow is a blessing. The curses indicate the absence of the vow being kept. Either one or the other will catch up to you, overtake you, grab you, possess you. The result is not so much a consequence of one’s action, but characterizes the action. And you cannot escape. The choice is yours. Will your life be a blessing and be blessed, whatever the degree of suffering? Or will your life be cursed whatever the degree of prosperity one achieves?

The covenant is there for you to make or not, to keep or not, to renew or not. The action, the vow, is its own reward. Accept your blessings. Rejoice in them.

With the help of Alex Zisman

en, prosperity and the good life both lay ahead. But the reason for the blessing is not as a result of keeping the vow, but is a sign that the vow is being kept by you. The vow is a blessing. The curses indicate the absence of the vow being kept. Either one or the other will catch up to you, overtake you, grab you, possess you. The result is not so much a consequence of one’s action, but characterizes the action. And you cannot escape. The choice is yours. Will your life be a blessing and be blessed, whatever the degree of suffering? Or will your life be cursed whatever the degree of prosperity one achieves?

The covenant is there for you to make or not, to keep or not, to renew or not. The action, the vow, is its own reward. Accept your blessings. Rejoice in them.

The Israeli Election for the 22nd Knesset September 2019

The election is over and I believe the results are more or less clear, though there is a slim possibility that the late counting of IDF votes could shift the results, but, in my estimation, not enough to make a significant difference.


  1. The polls were accurate. Contrary to early expectations that Netanyahu would eke out a small right-wing majority, and like a magician pull the rabbit of victory out of the electoral hat, polls from various aggregated media sources predicted that Benyamin Netanyahu’s Likud’s party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party would both win 32 seats apiece. And each more or less did, though Likud won only 31 seats and Blue and White won 33 seats. In that fact alone, the image of Bibi as a magician has been destroyed.
  2. It was a neck-and-neck race between Benny Gantz’s centrist or centrist-right Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) (though some dub it a centre-left party since it supports negotiations with the Palestinians and a two-state solution) and Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud
  3. No party, given the results, can form a winning coalition of 61 seats for the moment.
  4. Nevertheless, contrary to many predictions, though the race was very close, it is not nearly as muddled as it was after the April vote.
  5. If Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu – Israel Is Our Home) keeps his promise, and there is no reason to suspect that he will not, he will not throw his 8 seats in support of Netanyahu’s Likud, unless Netanyahu bails on Shas with 9 seats and United Torah Judaism with 8 seats – a highly unlikely prospect. With the two religious parties, Netanyahu has 49 seats. Without the religious parties and with Lieberman, he would only control 41 seats. With Yamina, those totals would increase to 56 and 48 respectively.
  6. Voting patterns also indicated that Likud only managed to eke out its 31 seats by bleeding from another more right-wing party, Shaked’s Yamina Party. For example, in Kiryat Arba, 54% supported Shaked’s New Right, the antecedent to Yamina, but only 32% in September. By taking blood from Yamina, Likud was only able to maintain itself at 33% of the vote.
  7. The role of Netanyahu as Prime Minister of Israel is over.
  8. The Likud in April got 35 seats and, when merged with Kulanu, had 39; six months later, it has only 31. It was an ignominious defeat.
  9. But not for the right which collected 38 seats (Likud + Yamina). Add Beiteinu’s 8 seats and the two religious parties (17 seats) and the right totals 64 seats even though the religious parties cannot participate in the same government with Lieberman. This does not take into consideration that many consider Blue and Right as a right of centre party. Though Likud clearly loss, the right in general was the winner.
  10. In spite of the demise of Bibi, Trump’s image did not seem to suffer as a majority of Israelis, contrary to any other state in the world, including the USA, continues to give Donald Trump a favourable rating.
  11. A unity government is only possible if Netanyahu resigns as leader of Likud yielding a coalition of Likud + Kahol Lavan + Lieberman = 72 seats. This is explicitly and unequivocally Lieberman’s preference and he has stated that he will not sit with any other party. Lapid, Gantz’s partner, has said “no” to Netanyahu but “Yes” to Likud without him. Gantz: “The country went to the polls and made a clear decision – unity. Blue and White won the elections and is the largest party. My intention is to form a broad unity government headed by me, reflecting the people’s choice and our basic promises to the public.”
  12.  Alternatively, and possibly more likely, Kahol Lavan could include Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor and the Democratic Union for 52 seats and perhaps tacit support (and even a coalition – is this wishful thinking on my part?) from the Arab Joint List to have a government with 65 seats supporting it. (Gantz admitted speaking to Ayman Odeh of the Joint List at 3:00 a.m. Israeli time on the morning after the election, but Odeh stated that their conversation contained nothing new and he believes the practice of delegitimizing Israeli-Arabs in politics would continue.) Alternatively, Gantz could make a bid to get some elected Likud members and perhaps part of Yamina to join his government, but the latter is very unlikely as Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett seem to prefer to position their party as an alternative to Likud. Besides, Hayamin Hehadash, that is part of Yamina, would not sit in a Gantz-led government alongside the left and Yamina has already notified President Rivlin that that the party will split and revert to the New Right and Jewish Home parties.
  13.  Odeh has, however, stated that he would prefer a unity government so that he could become leader of the opposition.
  14. Yamina, Labor-Gesher led by Amir Peretz and the Democratic Union of Meretz led by Tamar Zandberg, Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party and Labor’s Stav Shaffir, with Nitzan Horowitz as the new leader, all cleared the 3.25-percent electoral threshold.
  15.  Nevertheless, Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union, the remnant of the left in Israel, have been effectively politically sidelined and are no longer viewed as part of the core Israeli consensus, even while maintaining critical leading positions in academia, the arts and the media. That marginality will likely be reflected in the ministerial positions they will be offered. Revital Amiran’s insistence that the left was undergoing a renewal now appears as part of dreamworks rather than reality. Zandberg of Meretz would have to back off his opposition to annexation of the Golan Heights.
  16. None of these “adjustments” will impact on the moves for egalitarianism for Israeli Arabs that is increasingly championed by the Arab List, but certainly will undercut any substantive move for a two-state solution, or, more accurately, a two-state solution with security, but, in the minds of the critics of the left, only security-lite.
  17.  How will the left and centrists deal with the seeming reality that, in the fight for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they have lost; that possibility only continues to live with the help of life-support technical and foreign help? The combination of: a) the horrific outcome in Gaza following Israel’s withdrawal; b) increased Jewish settlements in the West Bank that cannot any longer be reversed in any reasonable political scenario; c) the stubborn resistance, blindness and intransigence of Abbas; d) the increasing preoccupation of Western states with their own internal problems and the shift to both populism and the right; e) and, most significant of all perhaps, the love affair with Israel as the exemplar start-up nation, all have conspired to undercut the thrust for self-determination for the Palestinians.
  18. The extreme right-wing Kahanist Otzma Yehudit, which advocates ethnic cleansing and the elimination of Gaza, won only 1.88% of the vote, contrary to some fears, and did not meet the minimal electoral threshold of 3.25%. Did Netanyahu suffer politically by opening a possible door to their inclusion in an Israeli government? Bezalel Smotrich from Yamina attacked Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of Otzma, for “wasting” right wing votes.
  19.  The Arab Joint List with 13 seats became the third largest party in the Knesset. In the April election, without a Joint List, Hadash-Ta’al won 6 seats and Ra’am-Balad won 4 for a total of 10 seats. The Arab parties running on a Joint List once again helped get out the vote and win more seats. Jewish volunteers helped to get the Bedouin to voting booths. Netanyahu’s explicit attacks against the Arabs, including the preposterous unsubstantiated charges of Arab voter fraud and a proposal to put cameras in Arab-Israeli voting booths, may also have driven the Arabs to vote in increased numbers.
  20. In the election, the only explicit fraud documented was by Likud. A Likud member was caught stuffing a ballot box at a polling station in the northern Arab Israeli village of Fureidis.
  21. The extra three seats for the Arab List in this election were likely the result of a combination of increased turnout of 60% (in the April election, turnout fell to a historic low of 49%), a pattern enhanced by new efforts of Arab-Israeli NGOs to encourage voting period, no matter what the choice, plus some switch from the 28.6% of the Arab vote that went to a Jewish-led party, over half almost equally to Meretz and Blue and White. If the latter was the case, this will have contradicted the predictions of Eihab Kadah, Director of Research in Arab society at Midgam Consulting and Research, that depression, lack of hope and dissatisfaction with their own leaders would increase support for Jewish-led parties. That only happened with the Druze. Evidently, an estimated 80% of Druzim voted for Blue and White, almost directly a result of Netanyahu’s nation-state law.
  22.  If the Joint List explicitly or tacitly supports the Blue and White Party, Gantz could become Prime Minister. Ayman Odeh has signaled that it is time for a Jewish-Arab partnership and that, under certain conditions, he would consider becoming part of a government coalition that made civil majoritarianism rather than Jewish majoritarianism the basic premise. This would expand the precedent set by the Rabin government. Odeh in an op-ed in The New York Times (8 March 2019) wrote, “there is no electoral math that leads to victory for a center-left-wing coalition without the participation of the Arab parties” as once again Arab-Israelis have emerged as “a political force that cannot be ignored.” Incidentally, 80% of Arab voters support a coalition that includes Arab-Israelis.
  23.  Yair Lapid’s promise not to form a government with the Arab parties might now turn around to slap him in the face, though he could step back by insisting he was only opposed to a coalition with an Arab-Israeli party that included Balad, a radical pan-Arab nationalist party. It is my conviction that the most important effect of this election is that it will mark a significant turning point in the move towards equal status for Israeli Palestinians.
  24. If Netanyahu refuses to step down as leader of Likud, as expected, then the possibility of a centrist national union government will disappear for the short term.
  25. Netanyahu will face prosecution in the next month, but Gantz may dangle absolution in return for his resignation as leader of Likud, though this may be hard to square with the party’s explicit commitment to the rule of law. In any case, the immunity law for sitting Knesset members and the High Court Bypass Law will also be dead.
  26.  Though the economy and security are usually the main issues in an Israeli election followed by policies with respect to the West Bank, it does not appear that Netanyahu’s last-minute pitches about spreading Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank had any significant effect on the vote between right and left.

At 2:37 Friday morning Israeli time, the Central Election Committee (CEC) announced the “almost final” results of the 17 September 2019 election…Over 4,431,000 votes were cast in the 99% of the votes. The turnout was 69.7%. The electoral threshold for a party to win seats was 3.25% of the votes cast.

Based on 93% of votes counted and a 69.4% turnout at 8:33 a.m. Eastern Canadian time (13:33 Israeli time), though the percentages came at an earlier time, the results were as follows:

Party Seats % Party Seats %
Kahol Lavan 33 25.93 Likud 31 25.09
Joint List 13 10.62 Shas   9   7.44
Labor-Gesher   6   4.80 United Torah Judaism   8   6.06
Democratic Union   5   4.34 Yamina   7   5.88
Total 57 45.69       55 44.47
Yisrael Beiteinu   8   6.99 Votes for other parties   0   2.85
  65 52.68     100.0

With the help of Alex Zisman

A fuller analysis of the election results will be included in a subsequent blog.

Part VIIA: Diplomatic Deception by Holbrooke re former Yugoslavia A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

The Dayton Accords ending the war in former Yugoslavia are widely seen as the major accomplishment of Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic role as well as a first-rate achievement of post-WWII American diplomacy. I eagerly read the biography to check whether my critical view of Holbrooke’s diplomacy in former Yugoslavia held up or whether I ought to alter my assessment of him. I was particularly concerned with the issue of diplomatic deception. By diplomatic deception, I do not just refer to misleading the militant parties who are deceived by a mediator in trying to help reach an agreement, but also the mis-directions aimed at one’s own political diplomatic superiors and colleagues.

If Holbrooke can be justly criticized for the Dayton Accords rather than complimented, can that be explained by the subtle corruption of American diplomatic work in Vietnam, as Packer implies? (p. 156) Packer considered the introduction of viciousness and deception that had already wormed itself into the heart of American diplomacy during the Vietnam War, to be further firmly pounded into place by the work of Zbigniew Brzezinski (Zbig), President Jimmy Carter’s Security Policy Advisor. In negotiations with the Chinese and Vietnamese governments and with the U.S.S.R. on the Salt II Agreement, Zbig finished the job of destroying a traditional lofty and honourable approach in favour of the misleading and bullying tactic, (primarily with one’s own team). Cyrus Vance dubbed Zbig “evil, a liar, dangerous.” And Zbig was. Further, he admired the use of muscle as a key element in diplomacy.

Perhaps I raise this question because I am a Canadian, because Canada has relatively little muscle to bring to the table and because of what I learned in my work with Canadian diplomats. I was taught that the central skill in international diplomacy was creative equivocation, the ability to forge language that allowed each side to take different interpretations of text, each favourable to one’s own side. As a variation on a standard Jewish joke, one party asks, “Does what you propose mean this?” The mediator replies, “Yes.” The other party takes the mediator aside and asks, “Am I correct in believing the proposal means this?” (That is, the opposite of the other side’s interpretation). And the diplomat again answers, “Yes.” Then an academic along as an adviser, who is trained in philosophy and a belief in “clear and distinct ideas,” takes the diplomat aside and says, “Those two interpretations cannot both be true.” The diplomat replies, “You are correct as well.” Diplomacy is interpreted as the art of making a deal by allowing each party to believe that the new arrangement serves each party’s interests, even if this has to be accomplished, in the worst case, by using equivocation.

However, equivocation is not bullying, that is, putting pressure on the parties by the threat of military force. Equivocation is more akin to a gestalt experiment in which different parties are given room to make their own minds up about meaning reflective of their own beliefs. The conviction is that, once the benefits of peace, and even the belief in it, have taken root, the differences may remain on the table, but they are no longer differences that the respective parties will be determined to settle by violent conflict.

Further, when is the use of military threat an act of humanitarian intervention rather than bullying? Former (and failed) Democratic presidential candidate. George McGovern, who had been a peace ideologue on Vietnam, became a militant proponent (as was Holbrooke) of what later came to be called “The Responsibility to Protect” in terms of a Canadian international commission and proposal to which I had contributed. R2P is defined as the duty to insert military force into a country to prevent the use of massive violence against a regime’s own people, as in the genocide of the middle class in Cambodia. Vietnam, actually carried out the job of intervention in Cambodia in 1979 to stop the genocide, or, as perhaps, should have happened in Srebrenica in former Yugoslavia.

In our own time, R2P was applied in one bombing run by the Trump administration in Syria in retaliation against the use of chemical weapons against its own people by the Syrian government, but then stopped. Holbrooke’s period as Undersecretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs was marked in good part by an effort to advance that doctrine. With one important caveat. “The thing called the national interest always came first. Holbrooke’s overriding goal was to re-establish the United States as a Pacific power.” (p. 196) But Zbig was several notches further towards the hawkish side than Holbrooke. He facilitated the Thai government supplying the Khmer Rouge and refused to allow what was taking place in Cambodia to be called “genocide,” both policy measures opposed by Holbrooke.

In the midst of Packer’s depiction of the tensions among the use of military muscle, realpolitik and R2P, Packer made a major error. He wrote: “After the fall of Saigon, President Ford had let 130,000 South Vietnamese into the United States. Then the gates closed.” (p. 201) As my colleague, Astri Suhrke, wrote in a 1981 article, “As of 31 October 1980, the distribution of Indochinese resettled in other countries were: The United States – 429,302 (including 130,000 evacuated to the United States in 1975).” The 130,000 is the number of Indochinese evacuated before the U.S. embassy in Saigon shut its doors. But, as I have written in an earlier blog, America continued to take Indochinese refugees, both under Ford and Carter. I do not want to repeat my explication of the error with any greater depth. Instead, I want to use it to highlight the difference between Holbrooke and Zbig on refugees. Holbrooke favoured continuing and increasing the intake. Zbig was at best indifferent.

Holbrooke left government with the defeat of Jimmy Carter by Ronald Reagan and went into the private sector to make money. But during this period, he became the ghostwriter for Clark Clifford’s memoirs, Counsel to the President. The result: “At its heart a book like that had to be a fraud. I don’t mean that it contained fabrications, or even that it was self-serving – all autobiographies are. I mean that, pushed down beneath the self-sacrificing public servant and sober statesman whose favorite descriptors were ‘gracious,’ ‘charming,’ and ‘delightful,’ there was, there had to be, a monomaniac whose ambition was so insatiable that he took on the running of a bank in his eighth decade.” (pp. 225-6) Packer described Clifford as a ruthless fixer consumed with power and money, but who had been transformed in the autobiography into a bore. Holbrooke, as a sycophantic hero-worshipper of Clifford, managed to convert him into a saintly sludge.  

In 1994, Holbrooke rejoined the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton (following the advice of Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state) as assistant secretary for Europe – a step sideways from his previous position rather than up. In his own words, Holbrooke wrote: “I thought the administration had never done a correct action on Bosnia. Having inherited a mess, they’d made it worse, and I suggested we shouldn’t make tactical decisions on a day-to-day basis until we had a strategic objective, tried to figure out what it might cost, and whether it would be worth pursuing, and whether we could get public support for it.” (p. 292) That strategic objective became forging a peace, even an unfair peace, as long as the war was ended, and using the big stick as pressure to help force the parties to make a deal.

The second point to note from Holbrooke’s own writing is that he now placed the importance of character as equal to that of intelligence. He never lacked the latter. What was that character? “(A) set of guiding principles, a value system, and rock-hard integrity…Without character, one can lose one’s way.” (p. 293) Particularly relevant to the present, Holbrooke noted: “My private conversation with Biden was difficult. His ego and the difficulty he has in listening to other people made it uncomfortable.” (p. 296) What did the Dayton Accords reflect about Holbrooke’s character, especially in a time when the public no longer respected public service or the national interest? Voters had become cynics and believed that one went into public service simply to advance one’s personal interests.

However, the answers to the issue of character and how to balance diplomacy with the threat of force must await the next blog. It is first necessary to summarize the state of play of the military and political forces on the ground.

With respect to the war in former Yugoslavia, America could have lifted the arms embargo on the Bosniacs or Bosnian Muslims so they could not only defend themselves, but recover the territory seized by the Republika Srpska. Holbrooke believed the failure to lift the embargo was immoral. But he had great difficulty in planning and executing a plan to bring that about. As an interim measure, Holbrooke favoured a UN resolution combined with the use of airpower in the region to enforce a cease fire by NATO on the Serbs who were using international airspace to attack the Bihać pocket.

But the Europeans would not use military force to help the Muslims. And the U.S. would not insert troops on the ground. On this basis, there was no realistic way to intervene militarily to help the Muslims and punish Serb aggression, especially since the attack on the Bihać pocket had been instigated as a counter-offensive to a Muslim military initiative.

However, events on the ground were changing. The ceasefire was unravelling totally. The Croatian army was now stronger than the Serbian one. The Bosniacs were now being supplied with military equipment by Iran and Turkey. Under this pressure, the Serbs counterattacked, tried to strangle Sarajevo further and capture the enclaves of Goražde, Žepa and Srebrenica. The latter was accomplished by totally embarrassing and emasculating the Dutch peacekeepers and by the massive slaughter of 7,000 Bosnian men and older boys in Srebrenica. UN-guaranteed protection had been a complete failure.

On the other hand, time was no longer on the Serb side. The Croatians were now stronger and the Bosniacs were beginning to develop some ability to defend themselves more effectively. Further, Milošević wanted to redeem himself in the eyes of the international community and seemed no longer willing to backstop the Serb leadership of Republika Srpska, particularly General Mladić, a genocidal killer.  At the same time, both the UN and NATO had proven to be paper tigers. Clinton’s closest advisers were urging the U.S. simply to adopt a strategy of preventing the war from spreading.

Tony Lake, however, now dissented. He insisted that the U.S. either allow Bosnia to defend itself and regain territory or develop a new strategy to end the war. But if the Americans bombed, UN peacekeepers who, no matter how ineffective in deterring any massive Serbian attack, would have to be withdrawn. Boutros Boutros-Ghali procrastinated, dithered and deflected criticisms. NATO was an impotent enormous military machine. In the meanwhile, Žepa too fell to the Serbs. A red line was drawn. If Mladić attacked Goražde, NATO would bomb his forces and this would not be stopped by a UN veto.

Just at that time, the Croats launched an offensive, Operation Storm, in western Slavonia and ethnically cleansed the Krajina region of Serbs who had lived there for hundreds of years. Milošević sent the refugees to Kosovo, disrupting the population ratio there and accelerating Kosovo’s eventual path to militancy and independence.

Suddenly, Serbs who had controlled 70% of former Bosnia-Herzegovina were now reduced to 50%. Finally, Clinton authorized a strategy marrying the threat of force with diplomacy. Holbrooke was assigned the task of heading the diplomatic initiative. However, he was not given a free hand and this was the major lesson that I was forced to take into account in assessing Holbrooke’s performance in the peace negotiations. The end game plan provided to Holbrooke by Tony Lake included:

  • A comprehensive peace
  • A cease fire with three-way recognition
  • Two autonomous entities, a Muslim-Croat one on 50% of the land and a Serb one on the other 50%, within a single Bosnian state
  • Negotiation of borders based on ground-level reality and land swaps
  • The lifting of sanctions on Serbia
  • The return to Croatia of the last piece of Serb-held land in eastern Slavonia.

What was clear from this framework is that the political result – marrying three estranged nationalistic political entities within a single state – would be a foreseeable nightmare. Further, the Bosniacs would not only have suffered the most but would be left as the bottom-line losers.

To be continued – Holbrooke’s execution of the peace plan.

With tthe help of Alex Zisman

Nationalism & Honourable Men: Ki Teitzei Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

There is more moralizing in this segment of the Torah, I believe, than any other, and more about the treatment of women than any other topic. We are well acquainted with the connection between a growth of a certain kind of nationalism and a very paternalistic attitude to women. Does this section emulate that pattern and throw light on the issue since these rules were formulated at a time when Israel was developing a sense of national identity in the context of a myriad of interactions with other peoples?

Look at the variety of situations with respect to the treatment of women. I list them below into groupings to make the analysis more manageable:

  1. Differentiating men and women – Cross dressing (22:5)
  2. The women and wives of others: a) The treatment of captive women (21:10-14) b) Relations with the wife of a man killed in a duel (25:11-12)
  3. Favouritism and Despising: a) A man with two wives who favours one (21:15-17); b) A man who hates his wife and questions her virginity (22:13-21); c) Second marriages (24:5)
  4. Forbidden sexual relations: a)Adultery with a married woman (22:22); b) Adultery with an engaged woman, urban vs rural (22:23-27); c) Sex with a virgin (22:28-29); d) Sex with your father’s wife (23:1); e) Sex with Ammonite or Moabite women (23:4)
  5.  Obligations towards a deceased brother’s wife (25:6-10)
  6. Other Restrictions: a) Harlotry (23:18-19); b) Divorces (24:1-4)

Let me discuss each category in turn.

  1. Differentiating men and women – Cross dressing (22:5)
ה  לֹא-יִהְיֶה כְלִי-גֶבֶר עַל-אִשָּׁה, וְלֹא-יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה:  כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה.  {פ} 5 A woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto the LORD thy God. {P}

Women now wear slacks. They even wear soldier’s uniforms and carry guns. When my male colleague in the philosophy department at York University periodically appeared and taught in a matronly dress, there were some raised eyebrows, but otherwise the costuming was ignored. Do we still buy pink items for baby girls and blue for baby boys?

Women should not wear items related to male functions is one interpretation of the first edict. These include either religious, military or sexual functions, or perhaps all of them. Does this mean tallit (a prayer shawl), tefillin (the leather phylacteries wrapped on an arm and forehead during prayer) and tsitsit (the stringed undergarment), all worn by religious Jewish males, should be forbidden to women? Does it apply to guns and the issue of women in fighting units of an army? And why is cross-dressing permitted on Purim?

Some have interpreted the passage to be simply a prohibition against misrepresentation. But then why does the text not say that? And what about the effects on gays, transvestites and transgender persons and the assault on their rights? Why is crossdressing abominable? I believe the issue of differentiating the sexes is fundamental to a regime that has different laws for men and women. The premises of those other laws are: a) there are basically (but not exclusively) two genders, male and female, and b) a judge, including God as my judge, must be able to distinguish the two sexes in practice since, in spite of appearances, the injunctions mainly pertain to men.

B. The women and wives of others

  • The treatment of captive women (21:10-14)
  • The treatment of a wife who intervenes in her husband’s conflict (25:11-12)

The text says that if you capture a woman in war, fall in love with her and want to get married, then the woman – it is not clear whether she has a choice – shall mourn for a month for the loss of her parents and only after that can the captor and captive have sex. If, subsequently, the man wants to divorce her, then he cannot treat her as if she were still a slave; she is free to go and do whatever she chooses.

The second case is very different. Two men are fighting. The wife of one of them intercedes and grabs her husband’s opponent by his private parts. For this intervention, she is to have her hand amputated. Abigail may not have grabbed David “by the secrets,” but she did intervene on behalf of her husband, Nabal. Was this an unseemly intervention and, if so, why was Abigail’s hand not cut off?  

Nabal is described as a hard, surly man and an “evildoer.” Abigail, his wife, is a prominent socialite. David, with his own militia, is on the run from King Saul and he sends ten of his men to get “protectzia” from Nabal in the usual gangster habit of extortion. Nabal tells them to go to hell and David prepares his men for attack. Abigail, fretful over the imminent conflict, intervenes, confronts David before he attacks and insists that her husband was a boor who did not hear or understand David’s needs. Notably, there is no mention that she grabbed David by his private parts (as the wife of the Syrian general and future president does with Eli Cohen, played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the Netflix series, The Spy). Abigail, like a prophet, blesses David and professes that he will win the throne. Nabal learns about what happened after waking up from a drunken stupor. Ten days later, he suddenly dies. Did Abigail poison him or did he die of shame or did Abigail let his vile nature and bitterness at the affront of being saved by his wife eat him up from within?

There is no evidence that Abigail seduced David, at least sexually, but she did dissuade him from attacking. The implication is that she was really a charmer and shared with David his diplomatic skills, prescience and wiliness. She did not get her hand cut off because there is no indication that she offered David her sexual favours as much as she might have flirted with him. But then, in light of the likely electricity between the two, did she kill her husband or was his death fortuitous so that she could then marry David, the future king? She could have just let David kill her husband. Instead, this vile, willful and self-destructive man was humiliated, saved, in fact, by a woman.

The answer, I believe, is that Abigail would have been put in a terrible position if she had not acted. She risked David seizing Nadal’s wealth to support his insurrectionary force. The lesson: if you are clever and play your cards right, you can end up with the wealth and the position, but do not give in to trading sex for favours. Use your brains. The lesson for the man – do not accept the offer lest you be diminished in everyone’s eyes and become, not a principled militant, but one who takes advantage of women in dire straits. Always be a gentleman in your treatment of captive women or the wives of those who get in the way of your ambitions.

Favouritism and Despising: a) A man with two wives who favours one (21:15-17); b) A man who hates his wife and questions her virginity (22:13-21); c) Second marriages (24:5)

These injunctions are more straightforward. The first instructs a man to give a double inheritance to the first-born son, even if the husband grew to hate the mother. Obey the rights of the first-born. In the second case, there are two different scenarios, one in which a man, who marries and finds that he dislikes his bride, accuses her, falsely, of not being a virgin. In the second scenario, he discovers that his new bride is not a virgin. In the first case, upon proof of the husband’s perfidy in falsely accusing his bride, he is chastised, fined and denied the right ever to divorce her. In the second scenario, if proof is not offered that she was a virgin, she shall be stoned for she brought dishonour on her father’s house. The final case is one when a man remarries, he should take a sabbatical year to ensure he has time to please his wife.

What should be clear by now is that these norms are not primarily about the conduct of women so much as about the honour of men in the context of a shame culture. Let’s examine the next batch dealing with:

  • Forbidden sexual relations

Do not commit adultery with a married woman or you both shall die. If you do harass and seduce an engaged woman in an urban setting when she could cry out and get help (the empirical foundation for this might be very faulty), both shall die, but in a rural setting when there is no one around to hear her cries for help, then the male only is the one who should die. But if you have sex with a virgin, then you have to pay the bride price and marry her. Don’t have sex with your father’s wife or, interestingly enough, Ammonite or Moabite women, but you are obligated to have sex with a deceased brother’s wife lest his line die out. These again are mainly about restrictions and obligations on men, not women, until we get to the condemnations of prostitution. Even the injunction about not having sex again with a woman you divorced, who remarried and divorced again, is about male behavior.

But why the severe restriction on Moabite and Ammonite women, that is women descended from Moab and his brother Ben-ammi (Genesis 19:30-38) who were products of the incest between Lot and his daughters? If you recall, the Moabite women in Numbers 25:1-5 were blamed for seducing the Israelite men and getting them to worship Baal-Peor. That was supposedly the reason for Solomon’s downfall. Ezra and Nehemiah adamantly condemned intermarriage between Israelite men and Moabite women.

But how can this be the case in light of the fact that David is descended from a Moabite woman, Ruth, who is perhaps the most noble female character portrayed in Torah. She and her Moabite sister-in-law, Orpah, married the two sons of Naomi. They did not seem to convert until after their husbands died, indicating a deep and sincere desire to be Jewish and not simply an opportunistic arrangement. Neither did they ever try to seduce their husbands into worshipping a foreign god.

Naomi was impoverished. Ruth supported her and Naomi reciprocated by helping her daughter-in-law get a second well-off husband, Boaz. I believe that, although at certain periods of national stress, prophets prohibited all intermarriage, even though Moses married a Midianite, the general injunction is against intermarriage, not to another ethnicity, but to women who not only would not practice the Jewish faith, but who would draw their men into worshipping other gods.

The gender rules are not primarily about women, but about making Jewish men live up to a code of honour, about bringing honour to themselves and their people. The norms are not about encouraging a reactionary nationalism reinforced by severe restrictions on women and a very paternalistic attitude towards them. The text is not simply about Jewish survival of a people, but about the character of that people that requires its male members to follow a code of honour. The text is about both preserving the people, but even more about ensuring the quality of those people. The men need to be menschlichkeit.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part VIC: Women: Richard Holbrooke’s and My Vietnam A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

In Thomas Power’s review of George Packer’s biography of Richard Holbrooke (“The Fog of Ambition,” The New York Review of Books, 6 June 2019), he sums up Holbrooke’s life as follows: “Holbrooke had the serious intent, the energy, the friends, the wit, and even the luck needed to accomplish great things, but he fell short…Holbrooke was not only physically big but had an emphatic personality, could dominate a room, make friends and kept most of them, read widely and greedily, and was a bit overwhelming when he turned his attention on you.” (p. 12) Packer fell under Holbrooke’s spell, according to Powers, and it was Holbrooke’s warmth, energy, and big presence that produced that effect.

Power sums up Packer’s enchantment with Holbrooke in Packer’s own words: “Holbrooke is our man – the perfect example of ‘our feeling that we could do anything…our confidence and energy…our excess and our blindness…That’s the reason to tell you this story’.” Packer attaches many adjectives to Holbrooke – abrupt, dismissive, vain, self-absorbed, wild, crass. Unlike his equally talented, bright and dedicated fellow diplomats, and in spite of these detracting personal traits, Holbrooke was driven, driven by the demon ambition.

In Packer’s and Power’s interpretation, that demon allowed the realist side of Holbrooke to keep his eye on the prize, Secretary of State, rather than allow his actions to be determined by his perceptions and analysis. Packer wrote, “It might have been better to be stupidly, disastrously wrong in a sincerely held belief like some of us.” This is the essence of Packer’s thesis. When it came to the crunch, Holbrooke surrendered to his realism, sacrificed his idealism and keen analysis to support unsupportable causes, such as the Iraq War.

While not denying the validity of the claim, I think that it is necessary to go deeper to explain why, and not simply assert that, realism trumped idealism. For what was that realism? Not an assessment of realpolitik, but placing career ahead of intellectual conviction. But why? Especially why when that very demon sabotaged the possibility of realizing the highest goal of that ambition?  At the same time, without that ambition, without the desire to make an impact and change the world, there would be no heroic career, but only a relatively mundane one. The question needs reframing. Why did career success and survival – not desire, not flaming ambition – undermine his real desire and ambition – to make the world a better place? Why did Holbrooke become a slave, not to his ambition, but to careerism and survival in the worldly world of careerism?

Approach the question from another angle. The American idealist love for counterinsurgency did not get Americans into the war, but it was this false faith in counterinsurgency that led them to expand the war and drag it out for years. What in Holbrooke’s personality and psychological make-up led him to criticize first his assignments, then the tactics and strategy of the war and even eventually the war itself, but not America as a fighting power? Packer’s thesis is that Holbrooke never did come to recognize himself or get at the root of these dichotomous forces at work within his soul. But neither did Packer. My thesis is that Holbrooke had a romantic, and twisted, view of love – love of both women and America – that was at the root of his mindblindness.

Packer writes that Holbrooke needed women to crack him open, to expose his tenderness, his vulnerability, and, in the final analysis, his bad judgement. “In their company, the hard, gemlike flame adjusted to a soft, illuminating glow.” (p. 85) But his hard-core principles were forged in Vietnam, in the absence of women close to him and in the absence of critical self-examination. The frustrating part is that Packer collects the clues that could reveal an answer, but does not in the end put the pieces together. And the clues can be found in his love life.

Unlike most of the bachelor diplomats in Vietnam (and many of the married ones), Holbrooke did not have a Vietnamese mistress. “Holbrooke might have wanted to, but he didn’t. He was too inexperienced, too geeky, too consumed with the war. And he was the kind of man who required more after sex than Physicians’ and Surgeons’ Soap – who needed the intimacy that talk brings. And then there was the possible fiancée,” Larrine Sullivan or Letti. Inexperience, a geek and preoccupation with war. And sex meant talk. And talk meant love. And love meant commitment.

Holbrooke was not a humourless scold who treated his promiscuous friends to a superego trip. He respected that his and their appetites were different. So were their ambitions. His appetite for women and his appetite for power had many parallels. But also many diametrically opposite dimensions. Holbrooke may have been a power-hungry driven individual who might push a Holocaust couple out of the way to obtain a better position. But with respect to women, he was the opposite – he took years and agonized over dropping a love, for a love was, he believed in each case, the love of his life.

Thus, Holbrooke was a prude, but not a manners prude. Manners and civility soften the exercise of power. Civility moderates aggression. Universally, Holbrooke was infamous for his lack of manners. If civility inhibits the propensity to use violence as an option, in Holbrooke his incivility was yoked to the pursuit of peace and in opposition to war.

Plato in Phaedrus describes the chariot of understanding being thrust forward by a pair of winged horses yoked to one another. One was appetite that was wild and Dionysian and impervious to the entreaties of reason. The other horse, in contrast, was possessed of passion that could be guided by reason; it was passion of a more noble breed rooted in righteous indignation and a moral impulse rather than an uncontrollable disposition. In Holbrooke, his uncontrolled passion was married to incivility precisely so he would not be or become violent or be prone to support violence; it was also driven towards unbridled ambition. On the other hand, his moral sensibility was reined in and governed by analysis and reason and that was protected by sex married to talk and to commitment. Hence, his propensity to think “good thoughts” alongside their fearsome and corrupt opposite.

It should be no surprise that the three loves of Holbrooke’s life were Litty, Blythe and Kati, with Toni Lake the one constant in background. Holbrooke’s relationship with Litty provided the metaphor for his Vietnamese phase. Litty was unworldly but possessed a cheerful solidity. She hated and avoided conflict or confrontation. Though very bright, perhaps brighter than Holbrooke, she vested all her ambition in him. He was playful, pushy and preachy. She was polite, personable and prudent. Where she was reticent, Holbrooke demanded that all feelings be expressed with his “bothersome insistence,” his nudging, rather than careful use of persuasion. Instead of a partnership, he insisted on commanding centre stage and Litty agreed to enter into a relationship of bondage to his career.

That’s it in a nutshell. Instead of the uncontrollable passion and ambition being moderated by the shared sex, talk and commitment, the sex, talk and commitment were all in service to his unbridled ambition and the savage art of bureaucratic careerism that in 1965 made him Ambassador Maxwell Taylor’s staff aide. While his best friend at the time, Tony Lake, rose faster and higher to become Vice-Consul in Hué, Lake was also more conflicted and took much longer to turn against the war, in part because he was in a real partnership with his wife, Toni, but betrayed that partnership by censoring his doubts which she much more readily expressed. In very different ways, the very different expressions of careerism in Lake and Holbrooke led to their betrayal of themselves, at least the best in themselves, and their wives. Toni, Tony Lake’s wife, felt betrayed. Litty was simply left more and more behind even as she and Holbrooke made a home together and had children when he returned to Washington in 1966 to enhance his form of abrasive diplomacy and unbridled ambition in a context of leaders wedded to a doctrine of self-deception.

Ironically, in 1967, when opposition to the war was rising like the waves of a tropical hurricane, the seeds had been planted by McNamara himself that would destroy the monster storm of self-deception that was the Vietnam War. Les Gelb, who became Holbrooke’s lifelong friend, was put in charge of what would become the Pentagon Papers, that assemblage of material, of exchanges and mountain of lies that repeatedly covered up the disaster of the war, all contained in forty-seven volumes of analysis and documents.

Vietnam had corrupted them all, from the diplomats in the field to Lyndon Johnson’s White House. Deception was the order of the day. Holbrooke could be more frank about the war than anyone, but dishonest about his dying love for Litty. Just when Holbrooke was in his third phase of doubt, doubt about the strategy being pursued, and quite willing to tell his mis-informed superiors unwelcome truths, he began to close down to Litty. The man who insisted on open and uncensored expressions of feeling, began to shut down when his feelings were no longer congruent with his image of himself. As he became cut off from his feelings, he surrendered further than most to practicing deception – leaking documents to the press and undercutting rivals. But his indiscretions were still only akin to the winds of a Category 2 tropical storm.

Holbrooke spilled the beans in a 17-page document that Packer dubbed the best piece of writing on Vietnam by an American official that he had ever read. Holbrooke was twenty-six when he told Johnson and his Wise Men that America would not and could not win the war. His words were ignored, but they proved to be prescient. On 30 January 1968, a week after the North Koreans captured the Navy intelligence ship, the USS Pueblo, and interned 83 of its crew, the Tet offensive, the battle that the North Vietnamese lost but which finally led to them winning the war, began. Within two weeks, 543 American soldiers were killed in action. Less than a month later, 500 Vietnamese civilians were killed by Americans in the Mỹ Lai massacre.

1968 was the year of Prague Spring and Canada welcoming 12,000 Czech refugees into this country. (Cf. Jan Raska, 2018, Czech Refugees in Coldwar Canada.) In 5 January, Alexander Duček defeated the Stalinist, Antonín Novotný, and had been elected as first secretary of the country’s Communist Party. However, Russian tanks crushed the new regime. It was a time of worldwide turmoil.

In 1968, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. 1968 was the pinnacle of student revolts from the streets of Berkeley to the streets of Paris and Stockholm. I was in Sweden undertaking a study of student housing when a Maoist-led demonstration filled the street with 3,000 sit-inners and when 12 American deserters, the first from Vietnam itself, arrived and were feted in Sweden that same weekend. The times they were tumultuous and the Chicago Democratic Convention was just one important expression of the turmoil that would lead to the disastrous presidency of Richard Nixon. Richard Holbrooke spent a good part of the year in the peace non-talks with the North Vietnamese in Paris. Nixon’s election freed him from being immersed in Vietnam.

As Packer writes, Holbrooke continued to be an absent husband and an indifferent father. While American (and Canadian and world) youth turned against not only the Vietnam War but America itself and against the Washington establishment but not against Americans per se, Holbrooke left a position at the Princeton Advanced Institute to run the Peace Corps in Morocco accompanied by his increasingly bored wife, Litty. And Holbrooke confessed his love for Toni Lake, who had become alienated from her husband while Litty had suffered for years in unfulfillment, in loneliness, and all but invisible to Holbrooke’s associates. The marriage was effectively over as was the War in Vietnam. It just took time and an enormous toll to peter out. Richard Holbrooke, who had voiced his opposition to the betrayal of the American leadership in Vietnam, betrayed both his wife and his close friend, Tony Lake.

Holbrook became editor of Foreign Policy but would not have qualified to even be a copy boy for Domestic Policy. And this is the nub of it. Holbrooke displaced his conflicted self in the larger public world onto his domestic life. However, he always remained faithful to the United States but not to his first two wives. In neither sphere was he able to resolve the contradictions within himself.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part VIB: Jack Kennedy – Richard Holbrooke’s and My Vietnam A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

Chapter IV is an insert from Holbrooke’s own writings while he was in Vietnam, particularly from his first posting to that country. “[W]ater everywhere, rising, raining, so that literally this province, even the ground around our building, is water; the waiting; the ugliness, the cruelty, the tragedy. And in Saigon a regime so totally bankrupt and disgusting it is hard to describe. Events of the last 2 weeks and the family he is captive of [my italics – the reference is to Ngô Đinh Diêm] will be able to lead this country anywhere but towards more death and dissension. So now we wait – for many things; above all, the end of this regime.” (p. 57)

They did not have to wait long. In November of 1963, a military coup overthrew the regime. Diêm and his brother were captured and murdered. And it was not clear why Holbrooke would not pin the responsibility for misrule on Diêm but instead insisted that he was a puppet on a string held captive by his family.

The U.S. military was training and arming the military units guarding the hamlets to which the peasants had been moved, ostensibly for their own protection. Holbrooke was handing out aid to help families relocate, thereby denuding the towns and villages of any population to protect. “The country is so sad, and I feel it more and more.” (p. 58) But what does Holbrooke conclude? “Much is beyond our power, and winning the war will in the end depend on factors we may not be able to control. But we are here now, and there is of course no other choice.” (pp. 58-9) But, of course, there was a choice. America could have left Vietnam in the way George Kennan recommended and without ten more years of suffering and deaths.
“I am fast deciding that the Mekong Delta is perhaps the most supremely unlivable place I have ever seen – yet 50% of Vietnam’s 15 million people live here…I feel myself on the edge of a terrible precipice, and I hope I do not do anything to fall in.” (p. 61) “[W]hy I couldn’t recognize myself I don’t know. I looked so goddam mean and serious, and didn’t look like I would ever smile again.” (p. 62) For Holbrooke, Saigon was grim. “I do not like the American women of Saigon at all, and I emphasize this point.” (p. 64) I will return to this feeling of Holbrooke’s in the next blog.
Simply put, Holbrooke, a normally very upbeat guy, had become depressed. Given the situation he was in, that is no wonder. But the real source of his depression was not just what he witnessed, but the tension and contradiction between what he saw and interpreted versus his fatalism and his inability to see an outcome other than “sticking to it.” He had become very critical of the military, not only for specific actions, not only for their lies, not only for their failing strategies and tactics, but for their:

  1. Lack of intellectual acumen – “These are guys who pride themselves on their toughness and skill, but they show so little perception.”
  2. Behaviour – “The Army…makes men complainers who respect only rank, and consider their own rank as a mark of their intelligence.”
  3. Attitudes towards himself – “They feel that I am a ‘Bulgar wheat salesman’.”

Col. Montague, who respected civilians involved in helping the Vietnamese directly, was a rare exception in the military. In contrast, the dominant American military method was to bomb them: “if the enemy is possibly around, ahead of advancing troops, stop all movement, and call for a smothering air strike or an artillery barrage. Never go in after them on the ground.” As a result, “a sizeable percentage of all casualties in the air and cannon fire are non-combatants, the peasant forever trapped in the middle of the war.” (p. 66) Then the ultimate betrayal – counting them as killed Viet Cong and enemy military casualties. Of course, the Viet Cong did worse, especially when the fighters were Cambodian. In the destruction of the Cn Ngành military outpost in the district of Ba Xuyên, 7 children and 4 women, family members of the Cambodian soldiers, were killed.

Holbrooke was revolted by the scenes and revolted intellectually. The war was wrong both “morally and tactically.” Victory Through Air Power was guaranteeing defeat. For the enemy shot at the helicopters to draw American retaliation on the hamlets they were there to protect. The result – more support for the Viet Cong. “I have no doubt that we kill more civilians than the VC, and with what might generally be admitted are less selective, less ‘right’ tactics.” (p. 70) But what are Holbrooke’s last plaintive words about his own role in a war he had come to believe was tactically, strategically and morally wrong? “But there is no choice, really, is there?” (p. 70) And I want to scream.
It is not as if President Kennedy had not been told. Packer tells the story of Rufus Phillips being asked to brief the President when Holbrooke happened to be in Washington. This was in the presence of all the important military and political muc-mucs advising the president to escalate the air war. Phillips sacrilegiously stated, “I’m sorry to have to tell you, Mr. President, but we are not winning the war.” Sixty strategic hamlets had been destroyed. Diêm had ordered that troops responsible for the defense of these hamlets be confined to quarters lest they end up supporting a coup.

The result – McNamara and Taylor sent back to Vietnam on another “fact” finding tour in which officers and Vietnamese officials would compound the lies collected and put if forth as reliable intelligence. The Americans endorsed the coup that was the first in a series that would bring different military officers to power in charge of the totally destructive folly that the Vietnamese called the American War. Three weeks later, President Jack Kennedy was assassinated. It was Friday 22 November 1963.

I was in my office at Trinity College at the University of Toronto. It had been my first faculty appointment. The walls were paper thin and I heard the ruckus in the hall. I put on my jacket, closed the door to my office and went for a walk around the campus. The silence interrupted by odd people weeping was eerie. Students and faculty stood in scattered clusters as if to comfort one another. Unlike my friends, most of whom admired Kennedy, I had been a critic of Kennedy ever since he appeared at a Hart House debate in 1957 when he was a senator and campaigning to become president three years later.

There is a picture, or there was a picture, that hung for years on the wall of the Debates Room in Hart House at the University of Toronto. The Debates Room was panelled in oak with a raised speaker’s chair. It sat 250 male students (more on this soon). I can be spotted in the picture as the only person without a jacket because I did wear a white shirt and thus stood out in this piece of memorabilia. I did not happen to own a sport or suit jacket and someone brought another person’s jacket out to me so I could get in. I had just finished pre-meds and was in first year of medical school.

The topic of debate was: “Has the United States failed in its responsibilities as a world leader?” Kennedy was slated to support the opposition to the motion. I was surprised he had come. Why Canada when he was fighting to become the Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States? We assumed it was to establish his bona fides. At the time we did not realize that debating at UofT was seen as second best to debating in Oxford. Steve Lewis, who would later serve as Canadian ambassador to the United Nations during the Mulroney government, led the “Ayes.” We had played football together in high school. Steve had been the quarterback and I had been a running end, chosen because I was tall, but benched because I almost invariably fumbled his excellent passes.

Steve was a superb debater. He had been elected president of our high school student council based on his brilliant rhetorical style that he had learned from his father, David, a Rhodes Scholar, who had become leader of the CCF. Steve soon became leader of the student CCF, the Canadian Commonwealth Federation that evolved into the New Democratic Party (NDP) 3 or 4 years later, and would eventually become leader of Canada’s federal social democratic party. Lewis then was an international sensation as a debater, leading the UofT team to a number of awards and had, if I recall, been named best speaker at one international competition.

Kennedy read from a prepared text. It seemed obvious that he had not written his remarks. Further, they were banal and delivered without any feeling. Kennedy was remarkable then, to me, for being dull and almost boring – perhaps he was using Canada as a practice forum. As I recall, and my recollection may be faulty because I could not find his speech on line to check, he rejected the idea that public opinion should influence foreign policy and insisted that, in spite of a number of errors in foreign policy under President Eisenhower – I cannot remember which, if any, he cited – America was a force for good on the world scene. Lewis argued the reverse and insisted that America under the driving force of the two Dulles brothers was not only in violation of international norms and treaties, but its own Constitution. [I apologize to Steve in advance if I have misrepresented what he said long ago.]

The Ayes clearly and unequivocally won the debate based both on style, content and, most importantly, the logic of the respective sides. But in the vote of the audience, the Nays won, by only a small margin as I recall, but they did win. Perhaps Kennedy was right that you cannot rely on public opinion to determine policy. I feared that the many groupies around the Kennedy aura would carry the day rather than thoughtful and reflective discussion. In America, patriotism would be married to celebrity to carry the election towards even greater militancy even if Kennedy failed to get the Democratic nomination or, if he did win, failed to be elected. If that audience in Hart House had been his electorate, he was a shoo-in as Democratic candidate and perhaps president, especially since he admitted that he was an accidental Democrat because he came from Massachusetts, but he shared the foreign policy objectives of the Republicans, and was perhaps more hawkish, only criticizing some of their decisions.

However, it was not Kennedy’s presentation that bothered me the most. Mary Brewin (another prominent child of a famous CCF leader) – or was it her older sister? – led a protest against the debate for continuing the practice of male exclusivity in Hart House. There are only males in that picture on the wall of the Debates Room. I was not torn enough about my objection in principle to male exclusivity to overcome my principles and stay away from hearing Jack Kennedy. In the paper the next day, when Kennedy had been asked why he had attended a debate from which women had been excluded from attending, he said, and I think I am pretty correct about this, that he believed in having some exclusively male clubs.

I had come to believe that in November of 1963, Kennedy was no more a prisoner of the hawks than Diêm was a prisoner of the Nhus. He was the lead Cold War warrior. Holbrooke seems to have seen him as a leader duped by short-sighted and misguided advisers. However, Kennedy was directly responsible for expanding the air war in Vietnam and then approving American involvement in the ground war, continuing America’s involvement in a vicious and unjustified international conflict that killed hundreds of thousands. Most disastrously, he did it in the name of patriotism, in the name of the duty to serve a nation, a nation deeply immersed in an immoral enterprise.

Richard Holbrooke, though he had become a critic of the war from four different angles, nevertheless was a deep believer in patriotism and carrying out his duties as part of the war effort. Kennedy had lauded those students who heeded the urgent summons and reported to their local Draft Boards, praised those who sacrificed to serve as American warriors or diplomats overseas, and, at the top of the peak of this self-sacrifice, elevated politicians to stardom. Politicians who fought in elections to win positions of power and had to make the tough decisions were heroes. Men like Holbrooke at the end of 1963 had a heightened sense of doubt and had become somewhat disillusioned. But only somewhat. They had a deep faith in America and its leadership, even as it erred. They seemed to have no ability to penetrate that faith to discern the source of those errors. The Air War would be supplanted by a vastly expanded military presence on the ground and General William Westmoreland’s new strategy of “attrition.”

Americans were now fighting wars like Charlie Brown in the Peanut’s cartoon played baseball, exclaiming when they were shattered on the field, “How can we lose when we’re so sincere?” In 1964, Holbrooke circulated that cartoon to demonstrate his by now enormous scepticism without any willingness to put his loyalty to the test. Why do Americans keep falling in love with insurgency? Packer’s answer: “We’re no good at it because we don’t have the knowledge or patience, few of our people are willing to learn the history and language and spend the years necessary to understand the nature of conflict.” But that is why Americans failed, not why they fell in love.

The American idealist love for counterinsurgency did not get them into the war, but it was this false vision that led them to expand the war and drag it out for years. What in Holbrooke’s personality and psychological make-up led him to criticize the tactics and strategy of the war and even eventually the war itself, but not America as a fighting power? Packer’s thesis is that Holbrooke never did come to recognize himself. My thesis explaining this is that he had a romantic view of love – love of both women and America.

With help of Alex Zisman

Judges, Justice and the Rule of law – Shoftim: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9.

Shoftim is the Hebrew word for judges. It is also the name for the Book of Judges as well as the portion of the Torah for this week. The topic of judges is very intimately connected to the issue of justice, but judges lack an exclusive control over the delivery of justice. At the very least, the responsibility for justice is shared with those who make the laws and execute them.

The gist of the Torah message is summarized as follow:

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue.

Tor repeat, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

On the other hand, there are the rulers and legislators. In Moses view of the executive branch, the king or ruler is chosen by God and not the people. But there are restrictions – no excessive wealth or power (epitomized by the clause: “The king must not have many horses.” Why? If one visits the archeological site at Megiddo, more specifically, all the stable and the training arenas, one recognizes why a horse is a stand-in for military power. Jeroboam II built the fortress to breed horses to be sold to the Assyrian Empire. Limits had to be placed on the ruler lest his heart go astray. Where to – wealth, sex and military might. The ruler must NOT set himself above his brethren or turn aside from the law. He has boundaries.

The divisions between executive, legislative and judicial branches of government are provided in outline. They will influence the entire history of civilization. I want to bring the issue into the present by considering two items:

  1. Fiddler on the Roof
  2. The current situation in Britain (a change from the U.S.)

Why Fiddler on the Roof? One simple reason: we saw the documentary, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles directed by Max Lewkowicz last evening at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, the revamped Midtown Theatre where I watched double bills after going to shul on a Saturday morning. It is a brilliant film placing the development of the musical in the context of political history that is culturally time-bound, but making that context universal so that the film shows versions of the production in Japan, Thailand and by schoolkids in Brownsville, Brooklyn with a cast that seemed to be mostly African-American. There was even a production in Anatevka, Ukraine, at which refugees from eastern Ukraine were in attendance.

For the documentary is about, as the musical Fiddler on the Roof was about, universal values and issues – about love between a man and his wife, love between a father and a daughter, love among sisters, about different forms of love between men and women, about oppression, persecution and ethnic cleansing, about parental prerogatives, the tension between tradition and modernity, and female rights. The song, Matchmaker, Matchmaker, follows Sholem Aleichem’s deep critique of the “profession” in the ironic mockery by Tevye’s three oldest daughters of a practice that had become reduced to avaricious horse trading of daughters.

The tension between tradition and modernity is related, not only to the events over one hundred years ago and the pogroms after the failure of the 1905 revolution in Russia, not only to the tensions when Fiddler on the Roof first appeared on the stage in America in 1964 as the feminist movement began, the civil rights struggle was heating up and protests against the Vietnam War were in their initial phase, but also to the present where widespread efforts are underway to reconnect with traditions that have begun to move into the twilight zone.

The documentary combines odes to both Sholem Aleichem (who wrote the Tevye the Dairyman short stories) and Marc Chagall, including cartoon drawings in Chagall’s style, as well as historical film footage and talking heads. The documentary moves smoothly through the analysis of different songs in the musical and the various highlighted themes, acknowledges and shows great appreciation for the different and unique contributions of the composer, Jerry Bock, the lyricist, Sheldon Harnick (currently 95 and the only survivor of the original creative team – he does not look 95 and in the opening plucks out a version of “Tradition” on the violin), the librettist who provided the narrative, Joseph Stein, Harold Prince, the producer, and especially Jerome Robbins, the director and choreographer of the distinguished innovative dance numbers. The documentary recognizes the different interpretations of Zero Mostel on a Broadway stage and Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor who has the part in the film. I want to focus on a theme that was present but not highlighted, at least as conceptions – that of injustice, the rule of law and the role of tradition.

At the core of the film, in my belief, is Tevye’s very interesting relationship with his only friend outside his family, as revealed in the musical, his relationship with God. We never hear God, but Tevye addresses God directly – except he no longer does when his beloved daughter, Chava, runs off to marry a very handsome gentile, Fyedka. (“I’m a pleasant fellow – charming, honest, ambitious, quite bright, and very modest.”) At the same time, the local militia commander gives the occupants of Anatevka three days to vacate their homes and move into exile. We are not told whether Tevye feels betrayed by God or whether he has just become bewildered and no longer knows what to say.

In fact, the film offers two very different and alternative ways of communing with God. There is the one as conceptualized by the prickly perfectionist Robbins in the exhilarating “Bottle Dance” at the wedding of Tzeitel and Motel. The ecstatic and wild dancing of Hasidim as they cross arms allows them to engage in their very own and very physical joyful expression of a union with God versus the verbal and plaintive and perhaps even ultimately disenchanted verbal dialogue of Tevye.

As Bartlett Sher comments in the documentary, “The Bottle Dance” is the epitome of a very visual metaphor of the struggle for achieving balance in the wild struggle through life between the demands of the law and individual passions, between tradition and change – after all, the scene is a tribute to the dancing tradition of the Cossacks, the prime perpetrators of the pogroms. How does one keep one’s balance amongst all the competing tensions in one’s life? “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But, here, in our little village of Anatevka, every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!

Loveable, human-all-too-human, raging and resigned, affectionate and stubbornly turning his back on his own daughter, as Chava exits voluntarily, Tevye is not permitted to stay home. The fiddler on the roof balancing on the upside “V” of a roof and inspired by Chagall always remains precariously balanced, but out of reach, and remains out of reach as Tevye has to pull his own wagon when his horse has died. Why? Because the Jewish traditions that once preserved that balance no longer work. Tevye, in his initial expression of faith, says: “because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.” However, Tevye, with an upbeat spirit as mammoth as his chest, gradually grows silent, resigned and depressed. In the end, he no longer talks to God.

However, this is an uplifting musical about the most profound and serious matters. Tevye has his lighthearted doubts. “Sometimes I wonder, when it gets too quiet up there, if You are thinking, ‘What kind of mischief can I play on My friend Tevye?’ Sometimes with ironic challenges. ‘It may sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not. After all, with Your help, I’m starving to death. Oh, dear Lord. You made many many poor people. I realize, of course, it’s no shame to be poor… but it’s no great honor either. So what would be so terrible… if I had a small fortune?’” If I Were a Rich Man. For, “As the good book says, when a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.”

Tevye cannot spit in God’s face for, “As the Good Book says, if you spit in the air, it lands in your face.” Yente, the matchmaker, is more direct and earthy. “If God lived on earth, people would break His windows.” Tevye cannot throw God’s words back in his face at the injustice of it all, at the failure to fulfil promises made. “Am I bothering You too much? I’m sorry. As the good book says… aaahh, why should I tell You what the Good Book says?” And by the end of the musical, after his daughter has run off with a tall, blond goy, Tevye has lost his sense of balance altogether. There is no longer Rabbi Dow Marmur’s, “On the one hand …and on the other.” Tevye remains silent and will no longer speak to his daughter, Chava, whom he will never see again as she departs “Far from the Home I Love.”

Balance! We live in a world that seems to have totally lost any sense of balance. When I once worked with the UN, I learned that it was Britain that was viewed as the responsible party for running the Security Council. Other states deferred to Britain to interpret the rules and protocols by which that august body made its decisions. That deference is the equivalent of oral law. It is tradition. Now Britain cannot even seem to govern itself.

Jonathan Sumption, who took a seat on the Supreme Court in Britain in 2011, has written a brief book, Trials of the State: Law and the Decline of Politics based on his 2019 Reith Lectures. There has always been a tension between judges who must interpret the law and legislators who must make the law. The sources of the tension are many. But the main ones are that, to make law, legislators must act within the rule of law. At the same time, judges build on those inherited laws and they set deep limits on how and what direction changes in the law may take. Balance is particularly difficult in a time when the executive seat of government is occupied by a George IV or a Prime Minister Boris Johnson or a President Donald Trump. Because all of these were or are disrupters and had or have insufficient respect for the role of tradition. For Sumption, a conservative legal theorist, the courts must not overstep their boundaries and fail to recognize that it is the legislature that has the primary responsibility for making the law.

These rulers have been or are reckless, irreverent and disruptive. They paid or do not pay attention to administrative detail. Trump challenges, weakens and tries to delegitimize American political institutions. Johnson in the pursuit of Brexit also is at war and actively undermining democratic government.

What if the executive branch goes legally “mad,” what if it transfers enormous sums of monies approved by the legislature to building a monument to madness, a wall on the American-Mexican border to keep out unwanted “aliens”? How do courts remain a source of continuity in touch with constitutional principles and responsible for political stability? The costs of instability are enormous. After 1905 in Russia, the rule of law broke down. Edicts issued were arbitrary and harsh and none suffered from them more than the Jews in the Pale of Settlement.

What happens if the judiciary is stacked such that judicial review of actions undertaken by royal or presidential prerogative has withered on the vine? What happens when the legislature has become dysfunctional and has become either subservient to the ruler or in open revolt against that ruler? Parliament in Britain has refused to follow the leader, Boris Johnson, and dissolve Parliament without conditions. What happens if the judicial review of the power has become silent or ineffective, if God, or God’s appointee, the Queen, reveals herself to be impotent and operates as an automaton acquiescing in the request of the Prime Ministerial will of a mad leader and issued an Order in Council proroguing Parliament after 9 September and before 12 September? Who is in charge? As Dan Balz wrote in Politics, “British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has eclipsed President Trump as the chaos-maker-in-chief…the new leader tried to take a wrecking ball to the political system and ended up hitting himself as well.”

We have a plague of leaders around the world, including Israel, making enormous and consequential decisions without the authority of legislatures. Judges now hold the balance of power and have a duty to decide whether to protect ancient constitutional principles that only the legislature may change the law. This is orthodoxy. This is tradition. And when the tradition of substance breaks down into dysfunctionality, the tradition of process must rise to provide a backstop.

Tevye lacked that. He had two rulers, his God above and a Tsar who thought he was god. His God seemed to have slipped into silence so, in the end, Tevye no longer bothered addressing Him anymore. And the ruler in Moscow had lost his bearings. So a local militia officer could order the villagers of Anatevka to leave within three days. But Tevye neither had a legislature which he could help elect nor a court of law that would determine, as Sumption did, that, “It would be inconsistent with long-standing and fundamental principle for such a far-reaching change to the UK constitutional arrangements to be brought about by ministerial decision or ministerial action alone.” Arbitrary decisions made on the fly are no way to execute laws.

Moses erred in expressing a belief in the divine right of kings allegedly appointed by God. But not wrong in recognizing that leaders often took themselves to be appointed by God, if not gods themselves. There must be executive restraint. There must be judicial restraint. There must be a parliamentary willing to exact restraint, especially when the executive ignores the grossly excessive destruction of our planet which jeopardizes all life and earth, an issue that was highlighted in the presentations of the Democratic candidates for president on Wednesday.

What happens when the well-trodden paths of tradition break down and people are forced to take roads to elsewhere? Jewish institutions and systems of law possibly have the honour of having the longest record in the history of humanity, but the executive role has been intermittent and the tiny historical legislative role has only recently been revived. No matter the length, and Britain can boast the longest record of all three at the same time, imbalance has displaced balance and unrestraint had buried restraint just when restraint is absolutely necessary to control the murder of planet earth.

Sumption wrote ominously, “Politics may be a dirty word, but the alternative to it is bleak: a dysfunctional community, lacking the cohesion to meet any of its social or economic challenges and exposed to mounting internal and external violence. This is a potential catastrophe in the making. But there is nothing that law can do about it.” In my free translation, Tevye said to God, “Ok, punish me, for what I do not know. But my horse? My planet?” However, as the organizers of the climate crisis debate showed, there is plenty that people can do when the rule of law fails us. We can organize to inform, educate and solicit the cooperation of our sisters and brothers. But the prime line of defence is our shoftim, our judges. The courts cannot stand by if the legislature cow tows to the executive to erode the rule of law and allow wanton destruction to continue.

Credit where credit is due. There has been enormous restraint in the use of military power, though in America that has been offset by the unrestraint in economic matters, whether it be with respect to fair contributions from the rich or the negotiations on international trade.

Justice, justice shall you pursue.

With the help of Alex Zisman

My Memories of Milton


On Monday, I learned that Milt Zysman had died. From speaking to his brother, Simon, I found out that he had pancreatic cancer. He had been diagnosed nine months ago and had been on chemotherapy. His immune system was compromised. He got pneumonia on Friday. Two days later, he was dead. I cannot get him out of my thoughts.

In the notice of his death that his daughter, Leslie, sent out, she said that Milt had dodged the death bullet many times in his life – but not this time. Milt was on a regimen of dialysis requiring that he spend three days a week in hospital. Milt told me it was not too bad. He had not told me that he had cancer, but perhaps he had been diagnosed since I had last spoken to him before we left for Mexico for the winter. The last email correspondence between us was last October concerning Immanuel Velikovsky.

Evidently, Milton was still working on his book on Velikovsky (V) until a few days before his death. In the 1970s, Milton became enamoured with V, particularly with two of his books, Worlds in Collision and Ages of Chaos. I have the impression that Milt had read everything by and about V. He certainly viewed V as the pioneer of modern catastrophism, that is, that the geological and climate history of this planet and, for V, human history. Both had been deeply affected by comets and other objects crashing into earth. V was not a freak as he is often treated, though I believe that the vast array of scientific and mythological criticism do not support V.

If my memory is correct, V helped found the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was a practicing psychiatrist. But he certainly was widely criticized by scientists, not so much, I believe, for his catastrophism as much as his use of biblical texts and cultural myths to try to provide a correlation to actual cosmological catastrophes. But the only thing I know about V is what Milt told me. I was never convinced by Milt, much as he tried to persuade me, that I had to read V’s books.

I got to know Milt in Harbord Collegiate where we were both high school students. He was a much closer friend of my older brother Al, but we were all in the same year. One memory of Milt is a game of basketball. He belonged to Club Vertis and Al and I belonged to Club Albion. Milt was the wildest player that I have ever seen play basketball, with long strides and his body stretched almost horizontally as he dribbled the ball. And he would risk the longest shots imaginable and then, alternatively, push ahead as if there was no one between him and the basket to try a rebound shot.

Milt was a unique being. But he was not the only one that was unique in his family. I recall once being in Milt’s house when he lived on Madison Avenue just north of Bloor St. and before his family moved north to Old Forest Hill Rd. Madison Avenue was already north for us downtown Harborites. There was a party. Milt’s cousin Joey (also the name of Milt’s son) was in town from New York. He played the guitar.

He was singing some tunes and I asked if he could play a folk tune. Ruth, Milt’s extremely beautiful older sister, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come out of the living room to talk to her. She took me aside and scolded me for requesting a song. I have a memory of her sitting on me, but that is probably a product of my wild imagination. But she certainly did scold me. “You do not ask a musician to play a song unless you are absolutely certain that the vocalist already knows the lyrics.”

I have never before or since had such a forceful lesson in social etiquette. I have also never ever asked a singer since then to sing a favourite song. When I later told Milt what his older sister had done, all he said was, “That’s Ruthie.”

In high school, Milt became notorious for one incident. Milt’s form and mine shared an outstanding French teacher, Dr. Hislop, however, not so outstanding as to be able to teach me French. One day, she had a hissy fit. She claimed that one of the students had stolen her French textbook. She told us that she would not teach us until the text was returned to her desk. Harbord Collegiate was widely renowned, not only for academic excellence, but for the revolutionary propensities of its students. The student body went on strike for three full days when Principal Graham tried unsuccessfully to regain control of the student assemblies. However, this was the first time we experienced a teacher going on strike.

The strike went on for almost two weeks. It was clear that Dr. Hislop would not give in. But neither would we. We opposed both collective punishment and charges made without any evidence that a student had taken her text. Besides, many of us were happy to escape formal French classes and use the time to do other homework. Milt evidently thought that both sides were being stubborn and irrational. A new text was placed on Dr. Hislop’s desk allowing her to save face and end the strike. Milt had purchased the book. But instead of being hailed as a peacemaker in an irrational and meaningless struggle, he was reviled for breaking student solidarity and for being an appeaser. I was a proud and stupid member of the ideological critic’s club.

During high school, Milt and my brother Al became summer partners in a tuck shop at Balfour Beach on Lake Simcoe just 2 miles north of Keswick on the south-east shore where Milt’s family had a cottage. The next year, I and another high school buddy got the concession at the Tides Hotel for their tuck shop and snack restaurant. The Tides Hotel was two miles west of Jacksons Point on the east side of Lake Simcoe, about 12 miles from Balfour Beach. As it turned out, the summer season was disastrous. It was cold and rainy. We were losing money and we desperately needed to make money.

Milt made a suggestion. He and Al offered to get some booze from their customers at Balfour Beach that we could buy from them at a modest profit to bootleg to hotel guests at a good markup. Suddenly, for about a month, we were making good profits from this alternative service – until we were caught when the manager overheard a conversation between the bellhop and a guest. (The bellhop was a procurer of clients for a commission.)

It was an end, but not an ignominious one, to our tiny imitation of Samuel Bronfman’s bootlegging operation during Prohibition that provided the foundation for the Seagram Distillery fortune. For, as a condition of quitting our bootleg business, we were given new cups and dishes and access to top quality coffee by management for, as we told the enraged manager, he had much more to lose if the cops found out than we did.

In university, Milt became an expert in pornographic literature, not as a voyeur, but as a great appreciator. He introduced us to Samuel Richardson and François Rabelais, Daniel Defoe and Henry Miller. At first, as the prude I was then, I thought that Milt had become a pervert, but gradually learned that he was intimately attuned to the fine points of and variations on the genre.

Milt went to law school, and “went” is the correct word. He faked his year of articling with the help of a lawyer-friend. And he never completed his bar admjssion exams. He was never going to be a practicing lawyer. He was a creator and inventor.

His father owned a mattress and upholstering supply business. Milt invented a mattress handle that was much stronger than the historical cloth strap and which could much more easily and economically be inserted in the side of a mattress. His family, I believe, became the largest supplier in the world of mattress handles to the industry, either directly or through license agreements. Simon will have to tell me whether this was just a boast.

Over four summers, Milt and my burgeoning family – Margaret and I added another child almost every year – shared different cottages and once a farm house where my family planned to move so I could write. The farm house burned down in the summer of 1965. Those summers were communal social events. Milt was an entertainer and had a wide assortment of friends. The summers were happenings and I let them happen as I did my own work. I was not a social creature, but Milt’s initiatives gave me a bit of sociability without any effort on my part. Milt became the godfather to our fourth child, Eric.

I do not know the year Milt became deathly ill. It was only a few years after he became Eric’s godfather. He had been admitted to the Toronto General Hospital for a relatively routine gastrointestinal operation by Dr. Khursheed Jeejeebhoy. He was the chief gastroenterologist at the hospital if my memory is correct. The operation went well. Unfortunately, while in the hospital, Milt got a fungus infection. Milt literally became deathly ill. We were told that it would be unlikely that he would survive.

Dr. Harold Wise had been in the same medical class as my brother and I. He had become the head of the Martin Luther King Jr. new and very large medical clinic in the South Bronx in New York. In running that facility designed to train locals in medical technical skills as a step out of poverty, during his tenure there, Harold became intimately acquainted with the healing techniques of local shamans. When he heard that Milt was imminently facing death, he flew up to Toronto.

When he entered Milt’s hospital room on College Street, I was sitting beside Milt as each of his friends rotated to keep him company and try to ease his suffering. I am not sure I was of any help. I did not read to him. I felt useless. I had left medicine to become a philosopher. Milt was too much a liver of life to become enamoured with philosophy.

Harold took off his jacket, but did not sit down. He leaned over Milt and began to quietly talk to him. He did not ask him how he was feeling. That was obvious. We were expecting Milt to die. After about ten minutes of talking in almost a whisper, Harold got up on the bed and laid on top of Milt. Milt very feebly started joking. “Since when did you become queer?” Harold hugged Milt, firmly but not hard. I sat still in utter amazement and could not even participate in the growing witty repartee between Milt and Harold. Harold was on top of Milt for fifteen minutes. Milt’s voice grew visibly stronger and his comments actually became really funny. Harold laid on top of Milt for perhaps another half hour.  

It was miraculous. Colour had returned to Milt’s face. He could actually speak so that we could clearly understand him. It was self-evident that Milt was no longer at death’s door. What could I say? I witnessed what I did not believe. And I have never got to believe, but at least I subsequently remained an agnostic. Milt recovered, though he had lost his sight.

I found the obituary of Harold that had been published in The New York Times.

WISE-Harold. We deeply mourn the loss of our visionary founder, Dr. Harold Wise, who pioneered family-centered health care at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Health Center in the South Bronx and the Valentine Lane Family Practice in Yonkers. When he could not find other physicians who shared that vision, he created the award-winning residency program in social medicine to train them. His healing legacy lives on in its alumni, faculty, staff and all their patients. Robert Massad, MD, Chair, Department of Family Medicine. Hal Strelnick, MD, Director, Residency Program in Social Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Milt, while blind, went on to invent a combination foam and coil mattress that was produced by a long machine that produced and laid out wire coils and then baked foam around them to create an independent coil mattress. Most of his friends invested in his creation. But it never worked properly. The machine would get gummed up and production would stop until the machine was cleaned. Eventually, after years of struggle and efforts to both improve the machine and open his own bedding stores, Foamcoil went bankrupt.

However, Milt was never daunted. He went on to try other inventions, to come up with other creative endeavours, to organize soirees and always to collect more friends. Most of those who know him now are far better acquainted with his later endeavours. Our worlds no longer collided. In fact, we had begun to live in different worlds. While he read and studied wars in the celestial sphere, I attended to earthly wars and their calamitous results.

Most of Milt’s old cohort of friends have passed away. My brother died 20 years ago. As did Harold 21 years ago. Dave Berger died almost 40 years ago. At 83, Milt outlived them all and was always dedicated to celebrating life. He looked death in the face and laughed.

At the cottage on the island on Saturday, I was walking down the long path to the boat dock, not to get on any boat, but to check the gas generator. On route, I kept thinking of how my life had become haunted with ghosts. I started to name them in my head. I was determined to write about them once again as I had a few years ago, for now this was no longer an infrequent occurrence. My thoughts turned to Milt. I had not thought of him for months. I wondered how he was. I vowed to phone him when I returned to Toronto. It was too late.

Last night, my wife and I went to see the biopic, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love about the late poet and balladeer, Leonard Cohen and his muse and Norwegian love of his life, Marianne (pronounced Mariann – e) Ihlen. The film was directed by Nick Broomfield, another once lover of Marianne’s. I will sign off by plagiarizing Leonard’s note to Marianne as she lay on her death bed and Leonard faced his own death at an age just less than Milt’s. The film both opens and ends with the same line.

“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

Hold out your hand, Milton. Reach for me. I will not be far behind. 

With the help of Alex Zisman