The Alt-Right in the Torah

A Prolegomena

I wrote the following blog on Sunday morning. But I did not send it out. Instead, I rewrote it on Monday. I still did not send it out. I set it aside on Tuesday and did other tasks in preparation for my leaving today. I read it over once again this morning, did a few edits and continued the debate with myself about whether to send it out. Spoiler alert! If you decide to read this tale of Israelite alt-right zealotry, you may find some current echoes, particularly a link between self-righteous religious pandering and wanton behaviour, and between defensive apologetics and inexcusable decadence.

In this case, I am not referring to Donald Trump and the alleged “treasonous” behaviour of Donald Trump Jr., but rather of Netanyahu’s pandering to the religious right and their imposition of shabat restrictive laws on the non-orthodox community while Netanyahu’s son, Yair, is recorded as engaging in whoring in Tel Aviv and of blackmailing wealthy friends for money to pay the prostitutes. “It was only fair given the $20 billion gas deal that “my father got you.” And there is another link – an emphasis on exclusion of the Other regarded as a danger to national identity. Donald Trump may inconsistently suddenly want to protect “dreamers,” Latin Americans brought to the U.S. at a very young age who grew up as Americans, but Netanyahu continues to move ahead to forcefully expel tens of thousands of African asylum seekers.

Why is corruption usually so intertwined with nationalist self-righteousness, whether in ancient Israel, contemporary Iran or the U.S.? Why are dodgy deals and sordid behaviour linked to a presentation of a wholesome image? When perpetrators are rewarded with an elevated status, is that elevation linked to a curse as well? Is hubris inevitable?

The Alt-Right in the Torah

by

Howard Adelman

If it is true, and, even further, if I endorsed Eric Ward‘s conclusion of his years of research, that the core of the alt-right is antisemitism, how can I suggest that the position of the alt-right is to be found in the Torah itself? I can because, although antisemitism is the central expression of the alt-Right of the twenty-first century, the core factors are universal. They characterize a certain type of personality and a certain type of political program. Those core values include the following:

Core Beliefs

  1. Supremacist beliefs, particularly male superiority
  2. Racism – defining that Other as inferior
  3. Placing blame on an Other
  4. Paranoia of that Other
  5. Nationalism rooted in racism to achieve security
  6. Ethnic cleansing or even genocide to get rid of the perceived threat
  7. Core Emotional Expressions
  8. Zealotry and evangelical fervour
  9. Cowardice or spinelessness – a lack of backbone
  10. Pornographic obsessions
  11. Authoritarianism
  12. A politics of resentment, of tactics and intrigue, rather than strategy aimed at achievable goals
  13. Utopian dreams of freedom from institutions and constraining rules
  14. Core Behaviour
  15. Spewing forth hatred
  16. Parading
  17. Property destruction
  18. Coercion versus assent; while projecting a utopian vision of social harmony, demonstrating a ready resort to non-state violence
  19. Attacks on Media
  20. Murder

The key part of the Torah where an alt-Right position is not only depicted, but seems to have been endorsed, takes place in the story of Pinchas or Phinehas in Numbers 25:10-30:1. Aaron’s grandson is called Pinchas. His most celebrated action is thrusting a spear or javelin through the bodies of a Simeonite prince, Zimri, son of Salu, and his paramour, Cozbi, a Midianite princess and daughter of Zur. It is an archetypal tale of a Jewish prince consorting with a shicksa (a gentile woman) that is perceived as threatening the genetic unity of the Israelites, completely ignoring that many, perhaps most, of the heroines in the Biblical tales are of non-Israelite background – whether Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh and refused to kill baby boys, the princess Bithiah who saved Moses, Zipporah whom Moses married, and, of course, Ruth.

The worst part of the story is not the lawless murder of the lovers, but that God forges a covenant of peace with Pinchas and makes Pinchas chief priest, inheritor of the mantle of Aaron. Not only Pinchas, but all his heirs and descendants. A divine priestly right of inheritance is created as Pinchas was credited for his “righteousness unto all generations forever.” (Psalm 106:28-31)

It is not as if this is a one-off story. It has a prominent place in the Torah. In fact, it is probably the most repeated narrative. The reward is discussed in Numbers 31:15-16 and the Ba’al Pe’or tale of sacrilegious behaviour is recounted in Deuteronomy 4:3-4, Joshua 22:16-18, Judges:20:28; 1 Samuel 1:3-4:11.

The story simplified is as follows: Just before the Israelites are to enter the Promised Land, at Shittim (named after an Acacia tree used to make furniture) where they camp, Israelite men become involved with Moabite women. Involved is a euphemism. The men are described as “whoring” with the Moabite women. Further, the men are not only enamoured by these women, but are enticed into their “idolatrous” practices. The Israelites were allegedly being led into sin via assimilation and flouting of the Mosaic ethical code.

As a result of the Israelite men consorting with the Moabite women and in partaking of their worship of their god, Ba’al, the Lord of the Israelites became incensed. God ordered Moses to take the ringleaders and have them impaled before him.  Only in that way could God’s wrath be redirected away from the Israelites. Moses ordered his officials to each slay those of his men who attached themselves to Ba’al Pe’or. Just after issuing the order, an Israelite male brought a Midianite, not a Moabite, woman into the camp. Phinehas or Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron, left the assembly at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and stabbed the man and the woman in their bed chamber with a spear right through their private parts.

Did it matter that a Midianite rather than a Moabite woman was the consort of the Israelite? Does it matter that in this case there was no association with worshipping false gods? Does it matter that Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses and a very important and influential political adviser, was a Midianite? Does it matter that this vigilante action was taken against people of wealth and status from both the Israelite and Midianite communities? Was the action motivated by resentment? Does it matter that the execution was carried out by Phinehas, whose name, like that of Moses, was of Egyptian origin and referred to a Nubian, perhaps from Sudan, like Sadat with a darker complexion? Had Aaron or his son, Eleazar, married a Nubian woman? Does it matter that the method of killing was not stoning – the usual means of dealing with those who followed false gods – but stabbing with a spear? Does it matter that they were stabbed through the belly? As Gunther Plaut notes (fn. 8), “into the chamber….through the belly” is a Hebrew word play better rendered “into the private chamber…through the private parts.”

When I was reading the latter, I immediately recalled a vivid scene. I was at the place of a mass murder outside of Butare in Rwanda of over 17,000 Tutsis who had been killed at the Murambi Technical School where they had sought refuge from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They had been buried in a mass grave. The bodies, barely decomposed because they had been so packed together, had been laid out on school benches and we had the onerous task of sampling and confirming the numbers slaughtered. I was most appalled by the babies and young children killed. But some of the women who were killed still had the spears in them that had been thrust up through their private parts to kill them.

In the biblical tale, the murder by Pinchas of the Israelite man and the Midianite woman stops the plague that had already killed 24,000. God spoke to Moses and praised Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron. Because of his action, God’s wrath and desire to commit genocide against the Israelites was turned aside. As a reward, God gave Phinehas a pact of friendship granting to him and his descendants a hereditary right to the priesthood in Israel. God then ordered the genocide of the Midianites.

Does it matter that an apparent result of destroying contact between Israelite men and Moabite and Midianite women may have had the benefit of stopping the plague which may have been made worse because the form of worship of the Moabites and their allies, the Midianites, was a of a fertility cult? Does it not matter that the murder was NOT “merely a kind of battlefield execution,” as Plaut describes in his commentary, but a summary execution of unarmed civilians in their private chamber? Does it matter that the persons killed had both status and wealth? Does it matter that humans had assumed God’s responsibilities to determine who should live and who should die? Whatever the answer and significance of the answers to the many questions above, what is clear is that, to repair a breach of the covenant, civilian murder and genocide were being endorsed in the Torah.

The issue becomes even more problematic. For when the story of Pinchas is the assigned Torah portion to be read that week, the Haftorah portion from the prophets that is read is the story of 1 Kings 18, where Elijah, who also acted in defence of the Jewish God and Hebrew practices, was so esteemed and even associated with the miracle of the resurrection of the dead. Elijah is viewed as a Messiah-in-waiting and Elijah’s name is invoked at the reading of Havdalah marking the end of shabat as well as at a Passover seder and in the performance of a brit, the circumcision ceremony.

More appalling I find is all the apologetics attached to the actions, to the beliefs and to the attitudes of Pinchas. For example, Targum Jonathan (18) claims that because Pinchas held the spear with his arm, prayed with his mouth, and stabbed the couple through their innards, that explains why the tender parts of the shoulder (zeroa), cheekbone (lechayayim) and maw (kevaw) accrue to the priesthood. Hirsch in his commentary insists that Pinchas was given such great credit because he caught them in flagrante delicto, in the overt prohibited act, and by the way he assassinated them, he sent a sign to others, as do professional mafia assassins and the gangs involved in the drug cartel. Given that the couple were “royals,” Pinchas was given greater credit; Moses, in contrast, had only slain an overseer and was not credited, even though the act was carried out in defence of another Israelite.

I am clearly disturbed by the tale. I am more disturbed by those who regard the spontaneous eruption of emotion, passion and murder as worthy of merit. I am appalled that commentators are not outraged by the action and by the apologetics that explain the action away as following the norms of the time. If so, why is the action not denounced in the commentary? Perhaps the story had an ironic thread. Perhaps the death of the two sons of Pinchas was his punishment. Perhaps the reward of an hereditary priesthood was really a curse for a family who would encounter tragedy after tragedy.

I am most troubled because the scene depicted conforms so closely to that of a mass rally where one of the demonstrators is so enraged that he leaves the crowd and takes upon himself the responsibility of murdering those with whom he disagrees. He is a zealot. Hatred spews from his mouth and blood comes from the use of his arms. Coercion not persuasion is the answer. When royals engage in the practice, it is regarded as even more heinous because, just as now, socialites stand out because of their role in the media in communicating values. Sometimes the messengers are killed as well. Antisemitic zealots murdered the Jewish radio talk show host, Alan Berg, in Denver.

The defined problem is not just a difference in belief between the Israelites compared to the Midianites and the Moabites, but that intercourse with the latter was regarded as the source of the plague. The others were blamed. The Israelites were not just different, but regarded themselves as superior. And the allure of females was pointed to as a source of betrayal. The others were not only regarded as Other, as an inferior Other, as a dangerous Other, but, in the name of respect for the Covenant of the Israelites with God, genocide was endorsed. Israelite nationalism was wedded to fanaticism in defence of security and continuity of the group.

Go further. In the portrait of God, vanity and brand management seem to be the key components at stake. The Israelites, in their escape from slavery, seem to be riven with insecurity and a fear of disappointing their demanding God. For God, politics is personal. Only He could occupy the limelight. If this does not trouble you, I would like to hear why.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

 

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Anti-Semitism, Jews and the Alt-Right

Anti-Semitism, Jews and the Alt-Right

by

Howard Adelman

The torch-bearing men in Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally screaming, “Jews will not replace us,” provide an indicator of the core belief of White Nationalists. Many, if not most, commentators on the tragedy in Charlottesville tended not to zero in on the canary in the coal mine. Anti-Semitism was pushed to the side as the focus became primarily racism and gender rights.  The liberal-left media readily concluded that coddling of the alt-right by allegedly conservative parties, parties permeated with an uncoded racism, was mainly responsible for the rise of the alt-right. On the other hand, the view of the Jewish right that the world is made up of us versus them, that the world has always hated Jews, was reinforced by the efforts of the alt-right. However, if we liberal-leftists do not recognize that we are also infected, then our failure to be accountable, indeed our intellectual dishonesty, will doom liberalism as well as true “conservatism”.

Eric K. Ward, a Black activist civil rights worker, who studied the alt-right and worked to document its character since 1990, recently reaffirmed that, “American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core.” (my italics) Antisemitism is the lynchpin of the White nationalist belief system. Jews are blamed for the globalist forces that put nationalist zealotry on the defensive. Sigmund Freud was incorrect about many things, but not when he insisted that the roots of anti-Semitism can be found in resentment of Jewish existence, and, to go further, in resentment that the roots of their own nationalist and extremist zealotry itself can be traced in part back to Judaism in the narrative of the nationalist zealot, Pinchas or Phineas (Numbers 25:10 – 30:1).

Friedrich Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals traced the roots of hatred to powerlessness that grows into something “enormous and uncanny,” “something most spiritual and most poisonous.” The expression of that hatred is “the spirit of revenge” that grows out of a slave revolt. When the country one lives in is not the one described, it becomes very difficult to identify the one that does. Denied fulfillment, blocked from realizing a vision, the loss of an ideal, however false and misplaced, means that losses can only be compensated for through revenge, revenge of the alt-right on Jews and resentment of the alt-left on Zionism and Israel as the religious caricature of the Jew first morphed into a racial one and, more currently, into a political one. Nay-saying supersedes yea-saying as extremists dedicate themselves “to go to the ends of the earth to hunt down the last of Satan’s spawns.” (The Turner Diaries)

Over the last fifty years, multiculturalism had displaced the monochromatic ideal, feminists and LGBTQ activists have almost buried misogyny, globalization continues to win even as economic nationalism has reasserted itself. For the right, there must be a cabal, a mythological secret conspiracy, a fantasy of an invisible power, to have won so much and so fast, to emerge and become so influential in the media and the establishment political class in Washington, whether Republican or Democrat. Jews are not simply convenient scapegoats. They are at the core.

But anti-Semitism had declined. Jews have been accepted like never before in history. In just over fifty years, anti-Semitism, already having diminished, was cut by almost a further 50%. However, over the last two years there has been a dramatic spike upwards. This is not simply because the alt-right has been given permission by authorities in power to act out its heinous ideology. That is simply the surface explanation. The deeper roots are to be found in the politics of resentment, not simply in resentment that the core figure in their own Christian belief system was a practicing Jew, but that the core of their nationalist zealotry can be traced back to Judaism. One should not be surprised that Richard Kelly Hoskins Vigilantes of Christendom takes as its hero the Phineas who, as a Hebrew zealot, stabbed an intermarried couple through with a single spear to prevent idolatry and intermarriage with the Midianites.

The politics of ressentiment, the conclusion that society has failed us, that we live in a time when the promise not simply remains unfulfilled but cannot be fulfilled, is not simply a belief deeply embedded in the right. The liberal-left have also been deeply disappointed. Efforts to create a world government answerable to a higher standard have failed. The dream of Jews and Palestinians creating a united federated state or a two-state solution in which they live side-by-side in peace, is proving daily to be a chimera, a chimera that can be blamed on the right, but also must and should be placed at the feet of the darlings of the left. If anti-Semitism is represented by White Nationalists on the right, it is also at work in the new form of anti-Israel double standards and activism on the liberal left. Anti-Semitism is at the core of the alt-right. The failure of both the conservative right coddlers and the liberal-left critics to zero in on that central finding is cause for great concern.

I focus, not on those who express outright antisemitism and call the pre-Trump governments in Washington the Zionist Occupied Government or ZOG, nor on Kevin MacDonald, who rails against multiculturalism while longing for a “white” civilization and opposing Jewish influence and identity. The 1488er neo-Nazis with its 14 word credo to secure the White Race and its promotion of the eighth letter of the alphabet repeated, that is, HH for Heil Hitler, The (((echo))) which claims that, “all Jewish surnames echo throughout history,” David Duke as the born-again Ku-Klux-Klaner who focuses on “Jewish supremacism,” and the neo-Nazi group, The Order, that bombed synagogues in Washington state and murdered Alan Berg, a radio talk show host, are all set aside. So are the so-called “more moderate” alt-right leaders, Richard Spencer, Peter Brimelow and Jared Taylor. I focus on those who support the alt-right who are Jews or, like Stephen Bannon, philo-Jews.

Many leaders of the alt-right have made outreach to Jews a priority – sometimes just tactical, at other times strategic, but often enough substantive. Yet the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) labeled Breitbart as “the premier website of the alt-right” with its “white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.” How does one reconcile the overt anti-antisemitism of a significant part of the alt-right while its semi-establishment leaders so frequently overtly coddle the movement? In November 2016, Bannon boasted to The Washington Post that “Breitbart was “the platform for the alt-right”. The overt support and not just coddling was most recently evident in Bannon’s vocal support for former Alabama Chief Justice, Roy Moore.

Breitbart News, that Bannon runs, was started by Jews, the late Andrew Breitbart and his co-founder and successor, Larry Solov. The news organization routinely plays up lies with a built-in racism (Obama was not born in the U.S.) and promotes conspiracy theories allegedly originating on the left. Aaron Klein, a Jew, is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief and its senior investigative reporter in the Middle East. He also has his own New York radio show with a weekly audience of about a million. Author of a best-seller, The Manchurian President: Barack Obama’s Ties to Communists, Socialists and Other Anti-American Extremists, he makes Trump’s assault on Obama look benign.

Aaron Klein might reply to accusations that he, and Breitbart News more generally, coddles extremism by insisting (correctly) that he has done more work interviewing terrorists (Islamic ones mind you), than any reporter in America; Klein interviewed both Ahmed Yousef, Hamas’ chief political advisor, and Mahmoud al-Zahar, the chief of Hamas. Klein insists that he recognizes extremism and the left-liberals who coddle Islamicists. The issue is not simply a credo. Klein authored The REAL Benghazi Story: What the White House and Hillary Don’t Want You to Know. He uniquely made Libya an important issue in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Before the third presidential debate, Aaron Klein painted Hilary Clinton with Bill Clinton’s infidelities (and lies) by bringing one of Clinton’s accusers, Leslie Millwee, a former Arkansas TV reporter, on his radio show.

What is Aaron Klein, a “good” Jewish boy who grew up in a tight-knit orthodox Jewish community, attended the Torah Academy Boys High School in Philadelphia and went onto study English at Yeshiva University, doing in an organization that supports sympathizers of the alt-right?

Aaron Klein, Andrew Breitbart and Steve Bannon all openly declared that they reject the “ethno-nationalism” of the alt-right and certainly any manifestations of its anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, Bannon champions the alt-right more generally even as Breitbart disassociated himself by defining its white-nationalism. (At the same time, leaked emails suggested that Breitbart News was marketing neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology.) Why Jews?

The core is Israel. Breitbart started his far-right news network in 2007 with “the aim of starting a site that would be unapologetically pro-freedom and pro-Israel. We were sick of the anti-Israel bias of the mainstream media and J-Street.” Steven Bannon was one of the strongest advocates for moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. (Trump’s insistence that the decision does not pre-empt any determination of borders appears to have originated in the State Department and/or his security advisers.) Though Breitbart and its allies mainly target the establishment in the Republican Party, all aspects of the Democratic Party and the mainstream media (including Hollywood), the core concern has been Israel and the mistreatment of Israel by these three main targets. They are accused of being pusillanimous and prejudiced against Israel.

A pro-Israel policy and anti-Semitism can possibly be reconciled. If Israel were defeated, Jewish refugees from Israel would flee to the U.S. This is the inverse of the belief that evangelical Christians only support Israel because they believe the restoration of Israel is a necessary prerequisite to the second coming of Christ. However, the excuse does not hold up. Most supporters and promoters of the alt-right (not alt-right members) are both pro-Israel and pro-Jewish. The leading propaganda forum is controlled and largely managed by Jews. Aaron Klein for the last 12 years has called Tel Aviv home. They support Israel, not only for its dynamism and creativity, not only because it is a haven for Jews, but because it is an outpost in the Islamic world of western democracy and European cultural values, and mostly because of the alleged unfair treatment of Israel by the liberal-left.

The core conundrum is that anti-Semitism lies at the theoretical core of the alt-right, yet the main publicists and umbrellas are supplied by organizations run mainly by Jews with philo-Jews playing a major role. If we understand the roots of that conundrum, we will also be in a better place to understand why its anti-Semitic outrages quickly became peripheral in the accounts of the mainstream press repeatedly critical of Trump and Bannon. If the new establishment coddles the alt-right and ignores the anti-Semitism at its core, the left-liberal press rejects the alt-right, but also relegates its own core anti-Semitism to the periphery. The coddlers ignore the anti-Semitism and the liberal-left minimize its significance in themselves.

I attribute the rise of the alt-right first and foremost to our failure to understand that the alt-right at its centre is anti-Semitic, that both the non-alt-right coddlers and the anti-alt-right critics tend to deny this reality. In this essay, I have not developed three additional propositions: our failure to see that the roots of nationalist zealotry itself can be found in Judaism; that somehow and for some reasons, Canada has mostly escaped that blight; and, finally, but not entirely, anti-Semitism continues to lurk in the reeds of the swamp of anti-Zionism in the public policies that continue to be adopted towards Israel. But these are all arguments for another day.

The Shape of Water – a movie review

The Shape of Water – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

When I wrote my last blog on last week’s Torah portion, I said that the parshah was about recognition. To my surprise, this movie that I saw last evening is also about recognition, about a mute but not deaf woman, a “princess without a voice” who is as alien to her fellow humans (except one of her fellow cleaning partner, Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer) as the alien amphibian, neither centaur nor satyr, with whom she falls in love. It is also about the loneliness of the Josephs of this world who not only interpret dreams, but live their lives in a semi-permanent dreamy state.

This movie is La La Land on LSD, a paean to the power and magic of movies and dreams over the rational, the manipulative and controlling powers that be. Recall the lyrics of The Fools Who Dream:

My aunt used to live in Paris

I remember, she used to come home and tell us

stories about being abroad and

I remember that she told us she jumped in the river once

Barefoot

She smiled

Leapt, without looking

And She tumbled into the Seine!

The water was freezing

she spent a month sneezing

but said she would do it, again

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make

She captured a feeling

Sky with no ceiling

Sunset inside a frame

She lived in her liquor

and died with a flicker

I’ll always remember the flame

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make

She told me:

A bit of madness is key

to give us new colors to see

Who knows where it will lead us?

And that’s why they need us.

So bring on the rebels

The ripples from pebbles

The painters, and poets, and plays

And here’s to the fools

who dream

Crazy, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that break

Here’s to the mess we make

I trace it all back

to then

Her, and the snow, and the Seine

Smiling through it

She said

She’d do it, again.

 

This a fusion film of a potpourri of modes – farce and melodrama, tragedy and comedy, horror (think Creature from the Black Lagoon) and cold war spy thriller (think of The Manchurian Candidate and its story of cold war conspiracies), cartoon-coloured amid the predominant film noir bleakness, a movie about a gaggle of inept misfits and a coldblooded (literally) square-jawed professional CIA agent with an electric cattle prod, “an Alabama howdy-doo,” that sparks memories of the sheriffs in the deep south reinforced when we catch a glimpse of news on the TV. But most of all, it is a romance and an alien movie for adults, a very different version of Beauty and the Beast, for the maiden is far from a beauty on the outside, but, on the inside, this Chaplinesque heroine has a heart of pure gold.

Sally Hawkins, who plays Elisa Esposito, lives a lonely life with a gay next-door neighbour Giles, played by Richard Jenkins. Appropriately enough, both live above a dying movie theatre where together they watch romantic musicals on TV. But this is a feminist age. Elisa is not only lost in her dreams; she is both resourceful and courageous, calculating and down to earth. She masturbates in her bathtub every morning to an egg timer. She lives in Baltimore and never jumped into the Seine. But on a cold rainy night, she ends up in the Patapsco River.

The cameo on homophobia and racism in the second diner scene may be viewed as odd, but it fits in – if only because everything in the film is odd. Guillermo del Toro, who wrote and directed Pan’s Labyrinth, wrote, produced and directed this romantic fairy tale set in Baltimore in the early sixties at the time of the struggles against Jim Crow in the southern U.S. The movie is as relevant today as it was more than fifty years ago, even though “the times they are a changing.”

It is a film of beauty and pluck, of dark shadows and pastel coloured daylight. Reality is said to be the domain of rules and responsibilities in a crabbed and paranoid world, but the authentic realism belongs to the dreamers whose imaginations sore beyond the narrow strictures that could suffocate us all. For it is the primal and animalistic married to grace rather than gravity, wed to the sensual rather than the intellectual, that offers salvation. The enemy of beauty, the enemy of dreams, the enemy of the imagination turns out to be Occam’s Razor, for OCCAM is the name of the massive and secretive spy complex where the CIA agent worked. (Look for the huge sign on the front of the complex.)

Occam’s razor was a principle penned by an English Franciscan philosopher in the fourteenth century who insisted that simplicity was to be preferred in understanding the world to complexity. This movie turns Occam’s razor on its head and insists that complex realities are far more important than simplistic theories; the imagination is richer than uncomplicated but dogmatic heuristic guides.

Heraclitus wrote that we cannot step into the same river twice. Everything changes. But that does not mean we should not leap into it once, that we should not embrace change and difference rather than marry the stolid and the solid. In this movie, the devil is the CIA agent, Strickland, played wonderfully and menacingly, but comically, by Michael Shannon, while the divine role goes to the amphibian creature from the Amazon played by Doug Jones. Of course, the latter, like Jesus, can heal wounds with his touch – and even grow hair.

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make.

 

On Dreaming and Morality: Va-y’chi Genesis 47:28-50:26

On Dreaming and Morality: Va-y’chi Genesis 47:28-50:26

by

Howard Adelman

In the last few blogs, as well as some earlier ones, I wrote about dreamers, individuals who marry personal ambition and self-sacrifice to realize their dreams (La La Land), and those who translate and transform dreamers and dreaming into brilliant works of art (Guillermo del Toro who wrote, produced and directed The Shape of Water). Dreamers belong to a Dionysian world of the imagination, an imagination which insists that reality is complex and not a world of simple and simplistic maxims characteristic of the Apollonian world of reason and Occam’s razor. Reality for the dreamer is about grace rather than gravity.

I repeated the refrain from La La Land about “The Fools Who Dream”:

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make.

Dreamers are fools – or so they seem. They break hearts and make messes. But Elisa in The Shape of Water mends hearts (and as her gills restored), not only her own, but the hearts of the sensitive souls around her. Further, she does not appear to be a mess-maker. After all, she works as a cleaning woman who may, in her imagination, live in la la land, but this Chaplinesque hapless heroine proves that she can be as conniving and courageous, even more so, than the stick figures that rule over her daytime drudgery.

The longest narrative in Genesis is about a person who is purportedly one of the great dreamers of all time, but not a dreamer like his father Jacob. The latter, when fleeing his brother Esau whose blessing from his father he had stolen (going well beyond his treacherous bargaining for his brother’s birthright when he was younger), had a dream. It is a vertical dream of a ladder that reaches up towards the heavens on the rungs of which angels clamber up and down. (Genesis 28: 10-19)

Jacob’s dream is radically opposed to the dreams in the Joseph story. When Joseph was a teenager, he “prophesied” in a perilous pair of dreams that he would lord it over his brothers, though the meaning of the dreams was so plain that he did not have to interpret or divine their meaning. In total insensitivity to his brothers’ natural reaction, he followed his story of his first dream with another dream with the same interpretation. No wonder his father was annoyed with him. When Joseph later interpreted the dreams of the cook and the butler, Joseph did interpret and foretold their radically opposite futures. The situation was similar, though with far greater global and historical consequences, when Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s two dreams.

Joseph’s horizontal dreams, in contrast to Jacob’s vertical one, stretched into the future rather than towards the heavens. In the case of Pharaoh’s dreams, they adumbrated first seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of want. Joseph’s dreams were used for self-elevation and were those of a diviner. Jacob’s dreams were those of one chosen by God. He was guided by predictions delivered by God’s messengers. In contrast, Joseph is the deliverer of the interpretations of messages attributed to God. “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” (41:16) But God does not interpret the dreams for Joseph. Joseph’s story belongs to the wisdom literature of diviners rather than the prophetic literature of the Israelites. As Pharaoh says, and he is not corrected by Joseph, “there is none so discerning and as wise as you.” (41:39)

God spoke to Jacob as he did subsequently to Moses and as he had to Abraham. However, as often as Joseph cites God as the author and the authority behind his dreams, Joseph is never addressed by God. God does not speak to Joseph, even to chastise him, as he does Jonah. God does not reprimand Joseph for engaging in malicious gossip about his brothers when he was a teenager or his enigmatic accusations of their being spies and thieves, and, most significantly, his puzzling demand that they return home and come back to Egypt with their brother Benjamin. He continues this mistreatment, but under the guise of charity, at the end of Genesis. And the irony!

בראשית נ:יט וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף אַל תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי. נ:כ וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה לְמַעַן עֲשֹׂה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה לְהַחֲיֹת עַם רָב.. Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. (Genesis 50:19-20; my italics)

The intentions of his brothers do not matter in moral judgments. For Joseph, a good will is not the only good without qualification and a bad will may even be an expression of God’s will. The divinely inspired dream of Jacob is radically different than the divination dreams of Joseph. Jacob’s dream humbles him. Joseph’s dreams, and even more so, his expertise in interpreting dreams, inflate his ego to proportions well-beyond the narcissistic fabulism of his teenage years. That arrogance is best illustrated when Joseph, in a false humility, claims that his dreams of divination are divinely inspired, that they are not his dreams, but dreams that come unbidden and, therefore, are supposedly delivered by God. He makes this assertion, not God.

Look more closely at the contrasts between Jacob’s dream and those of Joseph or the ones of others that he interprets. Jacob, like most prophetic figures in the bible, is his mother Rebecca’s boy; Joseph is his father’s favourite. Jacob in his flight from his brother Esau travels from west to east, having fled Beersheba for Haran. Joseph is transported from east to west and, not only settles in Egypt, but entices his whole family to leave the Promised Land and resettle alongside himself in Goshen. Jacob’s dream belonged to a certain place and came at a specific time, after he fell asleep at dusk with his head on a rock. Joseph’s dreams are more akin to daydreams and embrace vast territories of space and time rather than having a specific locale at a very specific time. There is no spot that is regarded as holy. There is no encounter with God’s messengers. Jacob’s vision is the guilt dream of a deceiver. Joseph’s dream is that of an achiever, a revealer who never feels a spark of guilt or recognizes his own role in deceiving others and deceiving himself.

Jacob was hated by his brother Esau, Joseph was hated by his ten half-brothers. Esau vowed to kill his brother after their father died; Joseph’s brothers are determined to kill him when Jacob was still very much alive. Joseph is saved at the last minute by Judah who sells him into slavery; Jacob flees towards his dream and purportedly comes to realize his mistakes and their consequences, though he can never accept that his brother loved him and forgave him. Joseph is transported away from his dream; it is his brothers who never cease distrusting him even when Joseph excuses their actions and insists that everything happened according to God’s will. They were not accountable and, by implication, neither was he. We are all mere instruments of divine will, according to Joseph.

The story of Jacob is one of self-transformation. Look at the harsh blessing he gives his sons before he dies compared to those Isaac bestowed on both him and his brother, Esau. The story of Joseph is radically different again. It is a tale of a brilliant administrator who saves the nations under the rule of Pharaoh, but then deprives Egyptians of their autonomy, of their status as freeholders of land. Joseph’s policies reduce them to serfs.

Jacob pursues freedom; Joseph does not, as his dream seemed to foretell, accept his brothers’ offer to become his slaves. But neither does he ever expressly forgive them or hold them accountable for what they did. Instead, he proclaims that there is no autonomy. There is no freedom. We are all instruments of a divine unfolding plan, a plan that made him viceroy over Egypt and the saviour of his family. Joseph claims – God never says it – “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” (45:7, my italics) Joseph sounds like Donald Trump praising his own fabulous contribution, not recognizing that he, Joseph, would be the agent that delivered the Hebrews into years of slavery by a people that resented what Joseph had done to them.

Joseph, unlike Jacob, never hears the words of God, because he is so caught up in his own beauty and brilliance while, at the same time, taking no responsibility for his own actions or assigning responsibility to others for their actions. Joseph is akin to ones who hear the words of the Delphic oracle and can interpret the puzzle, but Joseph cannot hear the words of God that are always direct and straightforward. Further, Joseph always remains totally oblivious of the ironic ultimate meaning of his dream even as he demonstrates the cleverness of a shrewd mind. At the end of Genesis, he claims to understand his dreams as God’s communicating his divine plan to him and, thereby, reveals himself to be a diviner without a prophetic bone in his body.

Jacob goes to sleep at sunset and by sunrise, following his dream, he has moved from distress and angst to the path of deliverance. But in the Joseph story, though there is a deliverance from starvation, there is no moral deliverance. There is no autonomy. There is no responsibility. There is no accountability. But most of all, there is no forgiveness. And forgiveness – the ability to give it and to hold it back – is the highest expression of our freedom. Joseph never has to struggle. Jacob, in contrast, struggled with both humans and God. For those struggles, Jacob, meaning trickery and deceit, was renamed Israel, from שרה, “to strive with” and אל (El), God..

בראשית לב:כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב. לב:כט וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל. Said the Other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” 32:29 Said He, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28-29)

Israel henceforth struggled and tried to be open and straight. But Joseph practiced even greater trickery on his brothers and was not straight. Joseph did not struggle even when he was a slave of Potiphar (Pharaoh’s steward). Potiphar’s wife repeatedly tried to seduce him when he had risen to the status of running the family household and Joseph had been such a blessing to that household. (Joseph would later rise to the status of running the whole of the Pharaonic kingdom.) God was always at Joseph’s side, but God never intervened on his behalf. The text reads:

בראשית לט:ב וַיְהִי יְ-הוָה אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ וַיְהִי בְּבֵית אֲדֹנָיו הַמִּצְרִי. לט:ג וַיַּרְא אֲדֹנָיו כִּי יְ-הוָה אִתּוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה יְ-הוָה מַצְלִיחַ בְּיָדוֹ… לט:ה וַיְהִי מֵאָז הִפְקִיד אֹתוֹ בְּבֵיתוֹ וְעַל כָּל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ וַיְבָרֶךְ יְ-הוָה אֶת בֵּית הַמִּצְרִי בִּגְלַל יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי בִּרְכַּת יְ-הוָה בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ בַּבַּיִת וּבַשָּׂדֶה. YHWH was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. And when his master saw that YHWH was with him and that YHWH lent success to everything he undertook… And from the time that the Egyptian put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, YHWH blessed his house for Joseph’s sake, so that the blessing of YHWH was upon everything that he owned, in the house and outside. (Genesis 39: 2-5)

Joseph rejected the advances of Potiphar’s wife, a theme of wisdom rather than prophetic literature. Why? Because, as he claimed, Potiphar has placed his complete trust in Joseph and put everything, except his wife, in his hands. How could Joseph make her husband a cuckold? That would be wicked and a sin before God. (Genesis 39:9) Joseph escapes, but leaves his coat behind. Potiphar’s wife uses it as evidence that Joseph had tried to sleep with her, just as Joseph’s brothers once used his coat of many colours to cover it with blood and claim that animals had probably killed Joseph.

Again, at another disastrous negative turn in his life, God evidently intervenes again. Joseph is delivered and raised up to a higher status. Is that because he declined to do a wicked thing with Potiphar’s wife? But if each turn and twist is about God’s predetermined plan, then he cannot take credit for his good fortune. Nor does he deserve any credit, even without God’s help, for he makes clear that he rejects her offers to sleep with her because he does not want to jeopardize his social and economic status. Jacob betrayed his brother’s and his father’s trust. Joseph, much sharper politically, refused to make that mistake, but is unjustly thrown into jail for his efforts. He repeatedly professes his innocence. At four different points in the overall story, he insists that everything that takes place is a manifestation of the guiding hand of God.

God, not Joseph, brought these events to pass. Joseph insists that he was not responsible for the good that emerged. But then neither could he be held responsible for the bad. And, because of the blindness of his soul, rather than that of his eyes, he will bring about the greatest calamity for the Israelites – their departure from the Promised Land and their eventual enslavement in Egypt, resented as they must have been by the Egyptians who had been reduced from freemen to serfs by Joseph. When Joseph introduces his father to his two sons when Israel’s eyes “were dim with age,” Israel switches the blessing in contrast to the trickery of his own father, he blesses the younger before the older. And he blesses Joseph and is no longer capable of struggling with God. He blesses Joseph and prophesizes, “God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.” (48:21) But, as it turns out, only to bury his father and then to resettle the Israelites in a foreign land.

Immanuel Kant insisted that the categorical imperative to treat others never as means to an end only is the sine qua non without which there can be no moral code. Others must be respected. Others must be recognized for being free men responsible for their own actions. This is the fundamental principle without which there can be no moral behaviour. Freedom is the essence of morality, freedom which directs one’s attention to the needs of others rather than one’s own passions and desires. Joseph is oblivious of others’ needs, even though he emerged as a remarkable diviner and administrator.

Forgiveness is both the recognition of the other’s flaws and the error of their ways as well as the recognition of their autonomy and their need to take responsibility for their deeds. Joseph never gives his brothers an opportunity to repent and never offers them forgiveness. Instead, he relies on the old empty maxim that God is responsible for all that is and for all that takes place. None of us are responsible for our own actions. Joseph carries this principle forward to provide a ground for converting the status of free and autonomous Egyptian farmers to serfs and, therefore, indirectly to the recompense to the Hebrews when they are made slaves in Egypt.ut Kant was not a dreamer. For it is reason which provides the foundation for morality. It is reason that provides the foundation for the recognition of beauty. In this way, rather than Apollo being at loggerheads with Dionysius, reason permits scientific knowledge, morality and aesthetics to be complementary and consistent. In Kant’s world of ends and final causes, in his teleological worldview and recognition of judgment as the ultimate arbiter, science and morality can be reconciled. Kant cannot bless the ones who dream, cannot bless those who are foolish, cannot bless those who fall from grace from his lofty perch of his pure practical moral reasoning based on a maxim that is the ultimate expression of Occam’s razor. Kant cannot bless those whose hearts ache for the other, and, ultimately, cannot accept the mess they make.

However, rationalists like Kant are not the only enemies of dreamers. Diviners who pose as dreamers are even greater foes. They deny freedom by viewing the future as pre-determined by a divine hand. They deny freedom by eliminating forgiveness from their vocabulary. They deny freedom by eliminating the principle that each one of us is responsible and accountable for his or her own actions.

On Recognition: Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27)

On Recognition: Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27)

by

Howard Adelman

When is an apple is an apple is an apple, as CNN in its self advertisements insist it always is? In an era when charges of fake news fly about like bats at each twilight, there is a disorienting quality when you cannot recognize what exists that stands right before you. I was reminded of the humiliation and embarrassment of my mild case of prosopagnosia or face blindness, for yesterday I saw someone approaching. He looked like he knew me. As he neared me, he said, “How are you Howard? Bitterly cold, isn’t it?” It was my neighbour. I know him well. He and his wife have been at our cottage. But until he spoke, I had no idea of who he was. He had to have noticed that initially I had not recognized him. And his name did not even pop into my mind until we had passed one another. Had he noticed my bluffing and cover-up in my clichéd response? I felt so em-barr-assed.

Over the years, I have developed a whole system of subterfuges to disguise and hide my disability. My wife helps enormously in dealing with this disability. When we meet others whom she does not know, but I am supposed to, she introduces herself rather than waiting for me to offer an introduction. When I am alone, I look at the floor or appear distracted in thought, which I am often anyway, but often wonder if my being lost in thought has not been a defence mechanism.

However, my failure to recognize is not just a matter of faces. When I was a kid, I could never tell one model of car from another. Among my friends, recognizing different models of cars at the time was a matter of status. I have always insisted ever since that I have little interest in cars and in driving. Where do cover-ups start and interests end?

Yet my difficulties in face recognition, my limitations in object discrimination have never impaired my ability to engage in intellectual analysis or to make decisions. Perhaps those inabilities should have made me wary. Instead, my arrogance about my own intellectual prowess and decisiveness only increased. But I am sure I should have been more chary, more guarded and attentive. This inadequacy, after all, is not simply about the world out there. It affects one’s ability to engage in self-recognition.

We have been watching the TV series, “The Crown,” a Netflix production. In the third episode of season two, called Lisbon, Queen Elizabeth confronts Phillip on the royal yacht and calls on them both to lay “their cards on the table” and examine themselves and their marriage for what it is and has been and, hence, for what it can become. Phillip has been a playboy chafing at the restrictions and daily humiliations, at his behaviour being dictated by the moustachioed watchers of protocol. Elizabeth has been publicly humiliated by the widespread rumours and now evidence of her husband’s infidelities. In this wonderful interweaving of family and national politics, the royal family is presented as far more human with their errors and limitations than the widespread images of the cold queen, her detached spouse and their doltish son, Charles. Beside the political clods and liars, like Prime Ministers Sir Anthony Eden and Sir Harold Macmillan, the members of the royal family come across as simply flawed humans rather than arrogant, pedantic and malevolent graduates of Eton.

“Know thyself.” That was a major dictum of Socrates. But if you cannot even see what is around you, if you cannot even see how others perceive you, how can you know yourself? This is not just about personal relations and mainstream politics. It affects what we see and how we deal with everyday life and even nature. Just this past week, we saw what we believed was a wolf in the backyard. It was not behaving as a dog. With its arched back, with its wary pauses as it dug into a hole where a small critter had its home, capturing and devouring it, we were sure that this was not an Alsatian dog.

It turned out to be a coyote. Coyotes evidently now live among us in the city, not nearly as plentiful as the squirrels and racoons, but no longer a rare sighting. Further, as one of my former students wrote, coyotes and Algonquin wolves have interbred and perhaps a new species of wolf has emerged. My student wrote: “For some time, it has been a matter of dispute whether Algonquin wolves are a population of eastern wolves or a separate species, which is of practical importance because the extent to which they’re protected legally depends on how they’re categorized –  in 2016 the Ontario government reclassified them as a separate species and changed their status from ‘special concern’ to ‘threatened’ (i.e., from two steps away from ‘endangered’ to one step away). But one way or another they are heavily hybridized with coyotes.”

The question of whether an apple is an apple is an apple, whether a rose is a rose is a rose, can be a matter of some significance, especially to the apple or the rose. Was that a peregrine falcon I saw for the first time this fall or a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk? Given my terrible record in object as well as face recognition, I cannot be trusted. However, my wife is extremely discerning. But she too thought that what we observed a few days ago had been a wolf.

So, even the best of us can be fooled. But we are also often foolish as well as fooled. This week the UN General Assembly rejected the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by an overwhelming majority of 128-9. Canada abstained though, as some commentators opined, our country might have voted in support of the Americans had Trump been a bit more diplomatic and less confrontational in his approach. After all, every country is free to locate its embassy where it wishes. Every country is free to recognize the capital of another country. No other country is denied recognition of its capital. And the recognition came with a caveat that this did not predetermine in any way the borders of that Jerusalem. Jerusalem, certainly West Jerusalem, is and has been the capital for seventy years and there is almost no likelihood that it will not continue to be so.

In the UN vote that Obama (generally an admirable president in my eyes) failed to veto last December, perhaps in an understandable fit of pique against Netanyahu (who competes with Trump and Erdogan for being a diplomatic fool even as he fails miserably to come close to their stratospheric absurdities), the UN de facto declared Jerusalem to be the Palestinian capital and did more to pre-empt the results of peace negotiations, and thereby undermine them, than anything Trump did or say. The vote further carried far more weight – because it was a Security Council vote which carried with it obligations rather than a General Assembly vote which could never be more than a recommendation and a sense of general support. Ostensibly, the motion was a condemnation of continuing Israeli settlement activity. But the vote called allthe territory on which Israel had built Palestinian and not just disputed territory, which was certainly the case of Jerusalem, which had not been allocated to either side. The resolution, in effect, re-wrote the 1947 partition resolution.

Against all my own caution when it comes to initiating steps in international diplomacy that can have incalculable repercussions, counter to my huge antipathy to a lying and narcissistic president such as Trump,  in the aftermath of what has happened since, I am even tempted to cheer Trump for his boldness and for his willingness to call a spade a spade, much as my heart warmed when Queen Elizabeth told Eden to his face that he was a liar and told Macmillan that he was even worse, for Macmillan was a duplicitous liar, denying that he had even supported Eden in the Suez fiasco in 1956 when he clearly did. South Africa may downgrade its embassy in Israel to a “liaison office” as a symbol of support for the Palestinians, but that merely sends a message that the whole international process is not about objective evidence or fair negotiations, but about whose side one is on.

It is through such layers on my lenses that I read the story in this week’s portion of Torah when Joseph, now the vizier of Egypt, meets his brothers once again after a long hiatus after they had thrown him into a pit many years ago and they do not recognize him. At the “re-union,” Joseph plays with them, insisting that they bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, back as surety for the food he is giving them, and, when they return, planting a gold goblet among their things when they depart so that, when his men search their packs on the way out of Egypt, they find the royal goblet and the brothers are accused of theft. Then the central confrontation takes place. Judah, who had assured his father Isaac that he would return with Benjamin, comes literally face to face with Joseph and asks that he, Judah, be held as a slave and Benjamin be permitted to return to his father.

Joseph cries, perhaps in response to seeing this brother’s devotion to Benjamin, and, even more, to their father, a devotion absent when he himself had been thrown into a pit, for Judah had urged that he be sold into slavery so the brothers would not have Joseph’s blood on their hands. Perhaps Joseph’s emotional response is because he sees that the brothers have changed and are no longer the young, irresponsible and cruel youth of yesteryear. Perhaps Joseph is simply tired of the ruse, of hiding both his identity and his guile from them. Whatever the reason, Joseph owns up to who he is and rejoices in his reunion with his brothers as Jacob never did with his brother, Esau.

What is the significance of this self-revelation and subsequent recognition? Why had Joseph been able to recognize his brothers after all those years, but they had not been able to recognize Joseph in all his royal finery and in a totally incredulous political position? The description answers itself – recognition is a matter of both context and expectations. Certainly, Joseph had taken advantage of his brothers’ non-recognition, arrogantly grilling them as if they were potential spies and now confronting their presumed lack of honesty when it was now Joseph who was not being honest with them.

Did this take place, as many moralist interpreters opine, so that Joseph would make his brothers recognize their past mistakes? Were the brothers carrying around with them, not only the sacks of grain that they had purchased in Egypt, not only the goblet Joseph had planted in Benjamin’s sack, but the guilt of their actions, not only against their brother, but, and perhaps more importantly, for their treatment of their father for whom Joseph was the favourite? Had that hidden guilt percolated to the surface now that their father might lose his youngest son, Benjamin, believed by him to be the only surviving offspring of his late beloved wife, Rachel? After all, Judah pleaded with Joseph begging the vizier to take him as his slave rather than Benjamin. Was this out of guilt for his past treatment of Joseph or guilt about the consequences to their father or, perhaps, both? Or was it because he felt honour-bound by the guarantee that he had given his father?

“So now, please let your servant remain as my lord’s slave in place of the lad, and let the lad go home with his brothers: for how can I go home to my father without the lad, and thus see the harm my father will suffer”? (44:33-34)

Joseph could not contain himself any longer. He bawled like a baby – right in front of his brothers, right there and then. “I am Joseph – is my father [really] alive?” (45:3) But he had known his father was still alive. His brothers had told him. Had he thought that they were lying? In his arrogance, did he think that his father had really died grieving over the loss of his favourite son?

Maimonides thought that the story was all about repentance – the brothers’ repentance for what they had done to Joseph many years ago, as well as Joseph’s repentance concerning his cruel and possibly vengeful treatment of his brothers, not only currently, but in the past when he told his father malicious tales about his brothers. Maimonides wrote:

“What constitutes complete repentance? He who confronts an identical occurrence in which he previously transgressed, when (at another time) it is within his power to repeat the same wrongdoing, nevertheless restrains himself and does not succumb to temptation because of a wish to repent and not out of fear of authority … this is true penitence.” (Mishneh TorahT‘shuvah 2.1)

I don’t buy it. I do not accept Maimonides’ theory of repentance when an event recurs that reminds one of the original one over which a continuing guilt has remained. Such an effort at interpretation tries to reconcile Hebraic concepts with Aristotelian theory, which was always more concerned with a heroic life in which the virtues are cultivated rather than celebrating a life in which humans follow the covenant and the rule of law. In Hebraic thought, t‘shuva, return, or revisiting an old error, and hence repentance, is a result of recognizing a failure to observe obligations, not a failure to be an exemplar of virtue. For Aristotle, only bad men without virtue feel repentance.

Maimonides tried, and, I believe, failed, to reconcile Aristotelian and Hebraic ethics. Instead on making a mishmash of the two by inverting Aristotle and marrying the inversion to Jewish precepts, why not recognize that the Joseph story is not about repentance at all, but about recognition, recognition about who another really is and recognizing and owning up to one’s own responsibility for what has occurred in the past.

Dena Weiss has written that the issue in this story is not about the repetition in memory of a previous occurrence and, hence, exposing one’s guilt, but about presence and absence, about proximity versus distance. Joseph was viscerally moved because Judah confronted him face-to-face and spoke directly to him. The days of deceit, of misdirection, of distraction, of deception, of distortion, were over. Reconciliation was not a matter of making oneself over into an exemplar of virtue, but of recognizing another and, through that recognition, recognizing oneself and one’s obligations both to oneself and to that other.

The writer of “The Crown” recognized that essential character when Queen Elizabeth confronted her husband about reality and asked where they go from there. The answer comes in Phillip’s speech at their tenth anniversary party when he publicly and openly recognizes Elizabeth for the woman she is, a woman of loyalty, a woman of honesty and directness, a perceptive woman, a woman to whom he is now happy that he married despite all the trammels and troubles of living as a royal couple.

Recognition of who the other is and self-recognition go hand-in-hand.  As Weiss wrote, bodily proximity in recognition is far more important than ethical remorse in a crisis of the superego. The issue is not to beat oneself up and lash oneself on the backside, but to own up, to take responsibility, to be accountable and, thereby, change who we are and our relations with another. T’shuva is the meaning of the good life, not becoming a new person with heroic virtues, but becoming an older and more mature person who recognizes and admits to his or her own shortcomings and recognizes but does not hold over the other a Sword of Damocles for how the other behaved in the past.

“Yehudah came close to him and said, “If it pleases my master, may your servant speak in the ears of my master and do not be furious at your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.” (48:18)

After all, one of the major themes of the Torah is moving from a culture of shame to a culture of guilt, not guilt from failure to be the best and most virtuous, but failing to be oneself. Israelites move not only physically but from a culture of revenge to a culture of forgiveness. Only then can we overcome stereotypes of the other and blindness about oneself. In the end, this is why sex in a marriage is so important.

“Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?’  And they were unable to respond to him because they were overwhelmed by his presence. Yosef said to them, ‘Please, come close to me.’  And they came close.  He said, ‘I am your brother Yosef whom you sold down to Egypt.  Now, don’t be distraught or angry that you sold me here, for God sent me before you for sustenance’.” (45:3-5)

Don’t feel guilt. Don’t feel shame. Just come close. Just be close. Do not promise that you will become who you are not, but be who you are, near and close to others, to your family and friends. Do not betray Eden as Macmillan did so treacherously, do not lie as Eden did to his Queen and to the Americans, do not be mendacious as Trump is, for if Trump had a record of integrity, then recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital might be viewed by others as an act of honesty rather than one of domestic political self-serving. Be close and do not be a manipulator from afar. To be dishonest is to be crooked. The categorical imperative of recognition is: Be straight. Let others know of your handicap. They will forgive you. They will compensate for you. You can depend on others.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Square – a movie review

The Square – a Movie Review

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday, because of vociferous urging by our youngest son, we finally broke the bad habit we had slipped into of not going to the theatre to see movies. We saw the Swedish film, The Square. The film was the first Swedish film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and swept the European Film Awards with six wins in all the categories for which it was nominated – Best European Film, Best Comedy, Best Script, Best Director (Ruben Östland), Best Actor (Claes Bang) and Best Production Design (Josefin Asberg). I thought that it was one of the very best films that I had ever seen.

Yet no other star in the film, such as Dominic West and Elisabeth Moss, was nominated for an award. In the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Critics Choice Awards representing 300 critics, and said to be the best predictor of Academy Award winners, the film received only one nomination, for best foreign film. There were 17 films nominated for more than one award ahead of it, only one of which I had seen, a terrific film directed by Dee Rees called Mudbound. But the latter did not even get one nomination. The Square was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, an almost sure thing if it is selected for predicting the winner of the Academy Awards Best Foreign Film Category.

Given that record, how can I insist that The Square is one of the best, not just foreign films, but one of the best films that I have ever seen? Further, for this year’s nominations in both the Critics Choice Awards and the Golden Globes, though almost all the films nominated are on my list of must see movies, I have viewed virtually none of the top ranked films. How can I be trusted to rank what is “best” when I have not seen the vast majority of the nominations? That is the cost of getting out of the habit of going to see films in movie theatres. I lose status and credibility as a film commentator. Look at the magnificent list ignoring for the moment possible errors in the compilation:

Film                                                               Nominated

Critics Choice Awards             Golden Globes

The * indicates the films that I have seen.

The Shape of Water                  14                                         7

The Post                                        8                                         6

Three Billboards Outside

         Ebbing, Missouri                 6                                        6

Lady Bird                                       8                                        4

Call Me By Your Name                 8                                        3

The Greatest Showman                                                          3

I Tonya                                            5                                        3

Battle of the Sexes                         2                                        2

Coco                                                 2                                        2

The Disaster Artist                        1                                        2

Ferdinand                                        0                                        2

Get Out                                            5                                         2

Molly’s Game                                  0                                        2

*Mudbound                                     2                                        2

Phantom Thread                            3                                        2

All the Money in the World          0                                        1

*The Florida Project                      1

Churchill                                         0

Darkest Hour                                  1

Dunkirk                                           8

Blade Runner 2049                        7

The Big Sick                                    6

Phantom Thread                            1

*Logan                                             1

Downsizing                                     1

Thelma                                            1

A Fantastic Woman                      1

BPM (Beats Per Minute)              1

There are four other films Submitted for Oscars for Best Foreign Film that I have also not seen: In the Fade (Fatih Akin – Germany), Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev – Russia), First They Killed My Father* (Angelina Jolie – Cambodia) and A Fantastic Woman (Sebastíán Lelio – Chile).

Further, if I can throw more distrust your way about my commentary, when it comes to assessing the character and content of the film, I, as you will see, seem also to be off base. The film is advertised as a critique of postmodern art and postmodernism in general. It is that, but only in a minor key. A judge for an award said: “This is an intelligent, subtle and funny film that raises important issues: how to help the poor, how to deal with the media and attract them by creating a shock factor. And I also fell for the lead actor!”

The film is subtle, sometimes uproariously but also mordantly funny, and Claes Bang is both terrific and handsome as the lead actor, but for me it was a horror film. Further, though it dealt with a number of themes, including the tension between art for its own sake and the marketing of that art, it provided no help as a how-to-do-it film about dealing with the poor, the media or, for that matter, minorities, the opposite gender, sexual harassment, and a number of other topical issues. The Square is not a message film. It is a comment certainly on what is bad, but offered no hint about the good, only dilemmas, such as choosing between free speech versus sensitivity to others.

The Cannes jury president, none other than Pedro Almodóvar, described the movie as follows: “The film looks at the dictatorship of political correctness. It offers several examples of this. It is a very funny film, the actors are excellent and we considered giving the lead actor a Best Actor Award.” All of this is true. But none of it touches the greatness of the film. Even Ruben Östland’s comment that he tried to make a movie that tackled serious subjects but was also entertaining goes nowhere near the significance of the movie. Perhaps he was being modest. Perhaps he did not truly recognize the greatness of his art.

I am not going to write about the acting – which was terrific – nor the long takes and crisp cuts of the cinematography, a superb script capturing both everyday speech and highfalutin nonsense, the brilliant score and alternating background harsh noises, or the major and minor plot lines woven through the film. I will write only about the theme, a bonus since I will not introduce any spoilers.

Except for one. But it takes place in the first minute as an opening prologue to the film. The director comments on how he came to make the film by, with a friend and colleague, imagining that they could create a safe space where people can meet and not only not be harmed, but protected by others. Just as a crosswalk provides a safe place where pedestrians can cross a road and cars will respect (largely) the social contract that allows the space to function for its intended purpose, they envisioned creating a square with an inscription that declares the marked-off square to be a place of trust and caring: people passing would be encouraged to offer protection rather than to be indifferent to someone being victimized or simply in need of help.

This suggests a very large vision, and, as I shall soon indicate, a paradoxical problem at the centre of all the themes raised. In the film, “The Square” is the name of a contemporary art piece installed in front of a famous museum of modern art in the capital of Sweden, Stockholm. “The Square is made up of square stone blocks very little different from the rest of the plaza in which it is installed, except it is bounded by a continuous white light band with a bronze plaque defining the nature of the space.

But this is the paradox – a boundaried space that is safe and protective for everyone within that defined square but is extremely dangerous for those outside the boundaries. The Chinese monster film, The Great Wall with Matt Damon and directed by Zhang Yimou makes that point. But the square does more than a wall. For the boundary marks off trust inside and distrust outside, safety inside and high risk outside, caring for one another inside and indifference outside, high civilization inside and barbarism outside. Further, the space is very small relative to the vastness of the occasions for risk, danger, physical harm and social shame.

To make that point, the author dreams up a number of relatively trivial incidents set off by a scam asking for help, but turning into the obverse, victimizing the one offering help then followed like a repeating pistol directly or indirectly set off by the repercussions of the first act. Once civilization is displaced by chaos, it is very difficult to put the genie of chaos back into the bottle. Every effort to atone for the initial failure by owning up only bounces back to victimize the “liberal” bleeding heart once again.

Of course, this is about daily life where on street corners and outside grocery and drug stores we are asked for funds and cannot escape the trap of victimizing the helper of goodwill because of the daily spam messages we receive in our email, with all of the misspelling and grammar errors, reflecting either a poor education in English or a deliberate effort to sound authentic.

“Forgive my indignation if this message comes to you as a surprise and may offend your personality for contacting you without your prior consent and writing through this channel.

“I came across your name and contact on the course of my personal searching when i was searching for a foreign reliable partner. I was assured of your capability and reliability after going true your profile.

“I’m (Miss. Sandra) from Benghazi libya, My father of blessed memory by name late General Abdel Fattah Younes who was shot death by Islamist-linked militia within the anti-Gaddafi forces on 28th July, 2011 and after two days later my mother with my two brothers was killed one early morning by the rebels as result of civil war that is going on in my country Libya, then after the burial of my parents, my uncles conspired and sold my father’s properties and left nothing for me. On a faithful morning, I opened my father’s briefcase and discover a document which he has deposited ($6.250M USD) in a bank in a Turkish Bank which has a small branch in Canada with my name as the legitimate/next of kin. Meanwhile i have located the bank,and have also discussed the possiblity of transfering the fund. My father left a clause to the bank that i must introduce a trusted foreign partner who would be my trustee to help me invest this fund; hence the need for your assistance,i request that you be my trustee and assist me in e

“You will also be responsible for the investment and management of the fund for me and also you will help me get a good school where i will further my education.
I agreed to give you 40% of the $6.250M once the transfer is done. this is my true life story, I will be glad to receive your respond soonest for more details to enable us start and champion the transfer less than 14 banking days as i was informed by the bank manager.

“Thanks for giving me your attention,

“Yours sincerely,
Miss. Sandra Younes”

Of course, the movie is about postmodernism in general and postmodern art in particular. The most horrific but also most hilarious scene is one of pasty-white Swedes dressed to the nines at a formal luxury dinner of donors to the museum. A performance artist for the delight and the enlightenment of the audience is on offer as a prelude to the dinner. They had clearly not understood the meaning of the boundaries of the square described at the prelude to the movie, for as soon as one strays outside or invites the primitive within, the very thin patina of civilized behaviour is put at grave risk. Is that reality or merely a reflection and projection of their own fears?

The simplicity, the repetitions and variations of the different sketches all loosely tied together by the main plot, are all exaggerated by the cinematography that stresses minimalism and alternates between long shots and close ups – the most horrifying perhaps than even the dinner, the scene of sweaty but emotionless and vacant sex. Order is a chimera. The greater reality is of chaos and the principle that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can send waves that disturb the order in a radically different realm. In this one, the disturbances come from the suburban Swedish equivalents to the Parisian banlieues. Modernism is about order and predictability. In art, Jackson Pollock destroyed the reign even of minimalism’s focus on line and colour and shape and opened the door to performance art and the mounds of earth and gravel piled up like well-ordered rows of pyramids in an art gallery.

As babies disturb conference meetings, as chimpanzees are owned as pets in one’s apartment, as children accompany dad to work, as the boundaries between work and home, between privacy and the public world, between what is liberal that morphs into a strain a fascism, all break down, as the line between the lecture and the press conference, between a detached objectivity in art and an involved and engaged subjectivity, between using words and images for communication and their use for arousal of fundamental passions in order to gain the attention of a very jaundiced audience, all break down, as borders are traversed, crossed and they disintegrate like the continuous strain of sound of demolishing structures in the background sound track, we are all put at risk.

At the base, there is the breakdown of the boundary between art and science, between subjective expression and empathetic involvement, between subjectivity and objectivity. The Swedes are the embodiment on this globe of the latter that percolated into an ethics of engagement and commitment that meant a higher percentage of refugees relative to the existing population than even in Germany were allowed entry through the new humanitarian sieve of aid to refugees. There could be no better place to locate such a movie.

It is expressed in the effusive and tangled apologetics for concept art that itself questions the idea of art framed in a boundaried space and in a boundaried place like an art gallery, that even makes a claim that art itself is the expression of the destruction of boundaries even when the main piece of art on display is a simple boundaried two-dimensional plane of supposed safety and security, but which erupts like a volcano out of nowhere into three-dimensional so-called reality. It may have been science that let chaos out of its cage, but it becomes the duty of art to put it on display in all its wondrous glory. How do you do it without either adopting a modernist stance of portraying it all with a camera detached and at a distance while engaging the audience’s fears and fantasies?

Chaos theory may have been imported in daily life metaphors to emphasize disruption rather than predictability as the norm, to brand outright lies as the only truth and to make the claim that news organizations aiming at objective truth are the foremost purveyors of “false news,” thereby making room for the coverage of lies to dominate the news cycle. For what is important is not what people say about you, but that they talk about you. Chaos theory in science may emphasize the importance of non-linear connectivity as a foundation for understanding complex behaviour, but art is left with the responsibility of making sense of this detritus.

Hence an art movie that is terribly, literally “terribly” entertaining, while, at the same time, both delivering a profound message and laughing at the message itself. Misunderstandings, misrepresentations, mis-communication all become the “order” of the day in which even the purely scientific idea of chaos theory is turned into garbage as it is translated into so-called art and metaphor and the theory itself is twisted beyond all recognition.

Jean-François Lyotard in chapter 8 of his volume, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, entitled, “Something like: ‘Communication …without communication,” raised the question about communicating to a public a theme that displayed and put on view the atomization of modern society to the point where it became postmodern and it became an absurdity to create art, the subject matter of which was non-communication. Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement had stated a basic premise of modernist aesthetic theory. Taste is “the faculty of judging what renders our feeling, proceeding from a given representation, universally communicable without the modulation of a concept.” What if there is no way to determine a “given” representation? What if every representation has been modulated to death by concepts? What if the only thing universal is not understanding and not communicating but misunderstanding and non-communication? How then can an artist portray such a situation without him or herself becoming trapped in the square of safety that has now become a centre of chaos and disruption?

In the movie, the real chaos is set in process when the marketing people take control with the categorical imperative of getting people to pay attention to an effort at communicating the essence of the high priest of ethical modernism which dictates that we are all to treat others as an end and not merely a means. We are all commanded to protect and care for one another. But when the ethical end itself explodes in our face because of the effort to communicate the message widely, the creature of chaos has been let out of its cage and barbarism has been permitted entry into the refined sensibilities of the world of high art.

If in my reading of Hegel, we have been taught that we can never escape the dictatorship of concepts that percolate through all our thoughts like a rat infestation. Then there is no ethics that can grasp grace. There is no art that can escape the conceptual, and all art becomes conceptual art. How do we illustrate and represent Christian, the CEO of this modern art museum who is a Christian at heart, how do we portray, represent and communicate a message of brotherly and sisterly love when Christian morality seems to have no place in the world of art, in representation, in communication, and, therefore, in its logical conclusion, in society at all? Everything turns to dust which can then be ordered into regular pyramids in a gallery, line after line, row after row, only to be disturbed and be remade by the cleaning technology of a modern sweeping machine and its operator.

If there is no beauty left as the touch point of art, if beauty has been destroyed as the necessary a priori condition of all art whatsoever, if there is no universal principle behind art and art has become the display of the absence of such a principle, how can we be made to be present in the face of an absence? Why have museums of modern art, let alone museums of postmodern art which undermine the whole role of museums altogether? How can we pretend to have art that is even about a community of feeling, even in a very symmetrical and relatively very small square in front of our museum? If the message is to communicate the absence of communication, the dissolution of a community of empathy, and the theme that we have permitted the barbarians through the gate that protected art, and beauty and goodness as an aristocratic privilege in society, how can that be represented? The lineal and the figurative are all swept up in the dustbin of history by the cleaning staff and their mechanistic monsters that remake art beyond recognition.

For the ultimate question raised in the film is how and where we can give to one another when we are so bereft of the concept of grace, when grace itself cannot be grasped except as an abstract idea rather than a basic emotion, when Christ has become but a name for a postmodern art curator who is at heart a hapless Charlie Chaplin creation? When the immediacy of attachment has been driven off the surface of our planet, how can there even be mediated attachment? When everything becomes the calculation of the marketer, of public relations entailing neither a public nor any relations, but only manipulation, it won’t matter whether we drive an electric car, try fruitlessly to atone for our mistakes or make meagre efforts to contribute to the well-being of the world. Chaos and barbarism have become all the rage.

When we try to define space and a time for safety and security, but the place is here only in this place and only for the moment that it is on display, the here-and-now are essentially lost and there can be no grace – only representation of it as a vanishing cloud of smoke above an explosion. When there is no reality to reference, everything becomes smoke, but only with mirrors that cannot reflect even the smoke, even as it tries in scene after scene to offer variations on that representation. When the sensible, when the apple is an apple is an apple, has been driven from the screen, so too follow the sensitive and the sensible into the fiery storm of sensation. And there is no sublime – only the ridiculous.

 

Jewish Men and the “Rape” of Dinah

Jewish Men and the “Rape” of Dinah

by

Howard Adelman

This week’s parshah, Vayishlach, has even more stories than last week’s Vayeitzei. But the one that has intrigued me the most is the story of the supposed “rape” of Dinah, the one female child among twelve brothers born to her father, Jacob. The reason is not because we read the story just around the time we honour women and rise up against violence committed by men against women. For the 25th of November is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. That is not why I have been particularly attentive to the story, though I read about the two weeks women have devoted themselves in The Campaign entitled, “Leave no one behind – End Violence Against Women”.

Why am I so attentive? I believe my curiosity, my analytic tools, my observations, have been especially acute these days because one famous man after another, in sports and the media, in politics and in business, has been accused of assaulting women. On the latter score, I am ashamed to note how many of those men are Jewish.

Why am I ashamed? I did not do those acts. I did not and do not condone them. My exceptional attention to these stories is not simply because I am especially intrigued by anyone who is both famous (or infamous) who is Jewish, though I confess that I read a number of articles about Meghan Markle, stories I would not normally have read. I looked them up because there were widespread rumours that the young lady newly engaged to Prince Harry of the House of Windsor was Jewish. She was and is not. The rumours are evidently false. They are fake-news. She did have a Black mother, though. That may be even more interesting in helping counter the horrors of racism than her being Jewish.

My intrigue with the men accused of forcing themselves on women without their consent preceded my noting that many of them were Jewish. In fact, I was shocked to discover how many of them were Jewish.  I had always believed, despite any absence of evidence, that Jewish men treated women more gently than gentile men. Of course, it was and is an ignorant prejudice. But it is one of those beliefs you hold onto from your childhood even though it lacks any evidence and seems on the surface to be patently false.

The recent stories might even lead you, erroneously, to the opposite conclusion. After all, in the effort to empower women, in the global campaign, still relatively in its infancy, there has been an outcry – see the hashtag #MeToo – encouraging women to set aside their fears of being shamed, shamed a second time for something for which they undeservedly felt ashamed in the first place. The magnitude of female harassment is astounding. The complicity of society in tolerating if not condoning such behaviour is perhaps even more astounding. But not surprising. After all, most of us know that the habit is widespread. Further, a man could be elected President of the United States even though 16 women have come out in the open and accused Donald Trump of molesting them.

However, I am not a righteous leader in that campaign, but a passive and sedentary follower. As such, I share in that complicity. But it is worse. I even feel the campaign somehow has gone too far when flirting, when catcalling, when joking, are all included as modes of harassing women on an equivalent level to men forcing themselves on women, grabbing their asses or their genitals. I do not think these very different types of behaviour are equivalent even though I understand the calls for zero tolerance, even though women have personally told me how this form of behaviour diminishes them and makes them feel very uncomfortable.

All that said, the fact that so many men are Jewish captures my attention more than the empathy I feel for these women. I am not wearing an orange scarf. Nor do I notice many others wearing orange. In fact, the evidence of witnessing and supporting such a campaign seems disproportionately low compared to the amount of pain and grief caused by such behaviour. One in three, to repeat, one in three women experience at least one incident of such violence in their lifetime. Every woman I have really known, including my two daughters, has had such an experience. I suspect the 1 in 3 is an underestimate. Certainly, among the refugees, among the civilian victims of war, the incidence of rape has been overwhelming. I recall when undertaking research on Indochinese how surprised I was to learn that as many as 50% of women refugees were violently sexually attacked.  I was even more surprised to learn of women’s resilience when, at the time, there was no campaign to empower women and enhance the feeling that they could resist.

In light of this unexpected knowledge, in the 1980s we set up a program to provide therapy for these women after their instincts for survival had subsided and the events were predicted to come back and haunt them. But those therapeutic tools were not for the most part needed. And when and if needed, they were diverted to helping men who suddenly became unemployed when the economic crisis hit in 1989 and experienced severe meltdowns.

In other words, I do not approach this problem with wide-eyed innocence. But I have not used my time and energy to advance reforms that will end impunity, that will prove that a culture of violence against women is not a natural part of our cultural landscape. Yet what do I focus my attention on? Not the pain and suffering of the women, but the number of the accused who are Jewish.

Harvey Weinstein, the most recent and one of the most painful examples, is Jewish. So is Al Franken, even though his apparent mistreatment of women was not nearly as frequent nor associated as much with explicit violence while, at the same time, clearly violating a woman’s space. But look at the much longer list of Jewish men who have been accused:

James Toback, the writer and director with films like Bugsy (1991) and Mississippi Grind (2015) to his credit

Leon Wieseltier, one of my favourite writers and editors

Mark Halperin, a journalist who was obsessed with stories about ambition and power, but evidently himself harassed women when he had such a position at ABC

Brent Ratner, a film producer

Jeffrey Tambor, the actor from The Larry Sanders Show and other sitcoms

Charlie Rose, rumours to the contrary, is not Jewish.

The list goes on. And these are but the tip of the tip of the iceberg, mostly drawn from public figures in entertainment, media and politics. Jews may be disproportionately represented on that list because Jews are disproportionately represented among those with money, power and influence.  Further, though all of the men come from a Jewish heritage, many of them have only a glancing relationship with their Jewish identity.

But that is not my point. I suspect the Jewishness of the perpetrators has little to do with religious or ethnic identity, though I am unsure. Even though the list would include the less famous doctors and lawyers, dentists and rabbis, my focus is not on these men, but on myself. What do I feel and think as I have moved from reading the story of “The Rape of Dinah,” from a tale I once believed was about rape to what I now believe is really a story mainly about men, and not even mainly the man who committed the alleged assault, but the men, Dinah’s brothers, who took it upon themselves to revenge their sister’s supposed “defilement”.

Read the story in the Torah. Reread it. It begins by describing Dinah very briefly as the daughter born to Leah and, by implication, not to Rachel or the two concubines. Is that significant? Is it more than a matter of casual interest that this first verse continues by describing Dinah as having “gone out” to meet the daughters of the land in the same terminology that described Leah going out to meet Jacob after she bought the mandrake root to seduce him into sleeping with her? Leah had intrigued to have sex with her husband. Was Dinah a young adventurous girl exposing herself to great risk by going out and consorting with the daughters of the Hivites when she was unescorted? Rashi writes, “Daughter like mother.”

Whatever the case, though Dinah may be a young virgin, there seems to have been an effort to paint her as compromising her innocence. “Her skirt was too short.” “She showed too much cleavage.” “She must have been stupid to go to his hotel room alone to discuss business.” The story seems less about Dinah’s innocence and the alleged abuse she suffered at the hands of Shechem than about the events following her defilement”.

Was she even raped? Verse 2 in the Plaut translation reads: “Shechem son of Hamor, the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, took her and lay with her by force.” (my italics) Plaut in his footnote writes: “Literally, lay with her and forced her.” But Rashi puts the emphasis, not on force, but that Shechem seduced her and had anal intercourse with Dinah – he was intimate with her in an unnatural way. That was the real defilement. The majority of commentators translate the verb vaiyeneh וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ as either rape, or violated, or lay with her by force.

Shawna Dolansky from Carleton University wrote an intriguing essay called, “The Debasement of Dinah” in which there is a long discussion about the meaning of the term vaiyeneh וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ or innah to claim that the verb does not and cannot mean “rape” for in many of the uses the verb is conjoined with the consent and not the non-consent of the woman. It is a case of reading into the text based on our own presumptions and sensibilities. Further, the term associated with rape uses a different verb– חזק – which is associated with using force and overpowering a woman. As the commentator suggests, “Thus, it seems clear that the biblical expression for rape is ויחזק וישכב, “to overpower and lie with,” not ‘innah’.

For Dolansky, the issue is debasement and not using force against a woman; it is debasement, not of Dinah, but of the standing of the men in her family. Dinah is debased, not because she had sex with Shechem, whether under duress or through seduction, but because the family has been debased. Why? Because the sexual activity did not take place as a result of the consent of the family. It is the power and status of the men that has been compromised. The story is not really about Dinah and whether she consented or not, but about the status of the family, particularly the men in the family.

In other words, if Shechem did use force against Dinah, then the problem is how this affected the brothers. And there are certainly many suggestions that rape was not involved. For the very next verse says that Shechem was “strongly drawn to Dinah,” that he was in love with her and that “he spoke to her tenderly” and wanted to marry her. This does not sound like rape, for rape is about the demonstration and exertion of power, not about sexual attraction.

The defilement, which Jacob recognized, was not about his daughter having sex with a young man, but having sex, and sex with a non-Israelite, without the father’s consent. The outrage that the brothers felt is not cited as the use of force, but that Shechem’s outrage was even sleeping with Dinah (verse 34:7) However, as usual, Jacob was measured in his response. And also diplomatic. One wonders whether he would really have been open to Hamor’s offer of a huge bride price. However, Jacob’s use of trickery now came back to haunt him as his sons not only tricked the Hivite men into being circumcised, but when they were in pain, slaughtered them. The brothers, all the brothers, took the women, children and animals as booty.

In addition to committing an outrageous crime, they besmirched the meaning of the covenant. Instead of intercourse and interchange between the Israelites and the surrounding tribes on terms very favourable to the Hebrews, Jacob ends the story by noting: “You have troubled me, to discredit me among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and among the Perizzites, and I am few in number, and they will gather against me, and I and my household will be destroyed.”

What was the rejoinder by Simeon and Levi? “Shall he make our sister like a harlot?” The issue was not the supposed rape of Dinah, but the defilement of family honour. For without their consent, the sister was considered a whore even if she had been seduced and fell in love with Shechem. Honour and status were far more important than the safety and security of the Israelites and certainly far more important than any pain that Dinah might possibly have experienced.

What has this to do with a disproportionate number of men in the United States being outed for their harassment and forced attention against women? Because it is the same story – one not of the pain and suffering of women, but the power and status of men. That, unfortunately, is also the story of bystanders like myself who look on and focus on that power and its defilement rather than on what happened to the women. It is a story about national socialism, about the ideology of Bannon and Trump, about ethnic exclusivity, about the power of one’s group set off against another, and about women used as tokens in these conflicts over status and power.

I believe I am complicit in a much larger sense under the masquerade of my liberalism.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman