My 80th – The Pearly Gates Are Within Sight

My 80th – The Pearly Gates Are Within Sight

by

Howard Adelman

On Saturday evening, my wife, Nancy, threw an eightieth birthday party for me. Thank you, Lynne; the food was terrific It was a wonderful event. Sixty family and friends attended. There would have been more, but colds and the flu kept many away. Further, most of my children and their children were scattered around the world. Nancy, thank you from, not the bottom of my heart, but from my brain.

Archimedes, and Greek philosophers in general, thought that feelings and thoughts were both housed in the heart and that as the heart filled with blood, it came out of the top. Thus, what came from the top was surplus blood. It was shallow. However, if you wanted to plumb the depths of thought and emotion, you said, “from the bottom of my heart.”

The problem is that the Greeks never knew or recognized the theory of the circulatory system understood fully by the Egyptians who had done their anatomy. The brain is the real seat of thought and emotion.

On Wednesday evening, we had returned from the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. We had been visiting my son, Daniel, his wife, Jess, little Leo and his adorable newly-born baby sister and my new granddaughter, Maren. On Thursday, I attended the funeral of my cousin, Gil, who died earlier that week, Birth and death were clearly on my mind. Saturday afternoon, when I clued in that there might be some speeches to honour me, I thought I should prepare a few notes. I decided I would talk about my 80th year as my last rite of passage before the finish line to which we will all arrive and none of us will cross. I thought I might talk about E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, and the verses of Walt Whitman’s poem from which the phrase had been drawn.

I will save those notes for a future blog.

When my eldest son, who had flown up from Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife and three kids, gave a speech telling everyone present what he had learned from his father, I had to interject and tell them the story of how, when I helped this illustrious historian write an essay in high school, he received the lowest mark he ever got in History. When his three children, Sadie, Jo-Jo and Sammy, told everyone what they had learned from their saba – how I taught them to win at cards and chess – I began to have serious doubts about the notes I had prepared. Then Natalie Fingerhut, a former student, offered an encomium on how important an influence I had been on her life. (see attached) Again I interjected. Because she had not sufficiently learned the principle of truth, I would take back the A I had given her on an essay.

Then James Nguyen spoke saying how important I had been to him and other Vietnamese for my work with the Boat People. For he had been a 7-year-old in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Malaysia. His wife, Francine, had also come to Canada as a child from a refugee camp. If not for me, he declared, their 18-month-old daughter, whom they had brought to the party, would not likely be here.

I was overwhelmed. I knew I could not talk about a rite of passage when James had just talked about the treacherous passage he and his family had made by boat to escape Vietnam and the several hundred thousand who never made it. Then Anton, the young son of my niece, Debbie, stood up and sang a song about dreamers. I did not recognize the song. But it was not from La La Land, or so I thought. As I racked my small musical brain, I thought of how many songs were about realizing your visions

Not just dreams about another – “Dream a Little Dream of Me” – or of escapism – “All I have to do is Dream of You” or “Dreamin’ of You” – or the classic of all time, “Over the Rainbow.” There are impossible dreams, unreachable dreams, utopian dreams – John Lennon’s “Imagine” – dreams of frustration, “Sweet Dreams” and sour dreams, nostalgic dreams and dreams of inability to recover a lost love – “Some dreams are made of this” – emotion or friendship – “Bob Dylan’s Dream.”

“With haunted hearts through the heat and cold

We never thought we would ever grow old

We thought we could sit forever in fun

But our chances were really a million to one.”

But this was a song about realizing and enacting one’s vision. And I knew what I would talk about – a dream that is part of our culture, one with which everyone is familiar, but few know. I had been thinking long and hard recently about the Pearly Gates – really, twelve gates each made of a huge pearl. George Bernard Shaw called them “the visions of a drug addict.”

The vision is included in Revelation, especially chapter 21.  In Christian lore, they are the gates to heaven; human sinners are judged before they are allowed to pass. If one has sincerely accepted Jesus as one’s saviour, if one has surrendered one’s soul to Christ, then only via the intercession of Jesus could one be saved for a life ever after in heaven.

In Jewish lore, however, and if you read the plain meaning of the text in Revelation, the gates are not openings to heaven, but to the New Jerusalem on earth. Further, the gates offer a paradox. They are always open. They are never closed. But somehow, no one ever passes through the gates. For passage requires both that the nephesh, the soul, the spirit of the person who approaches the gates, to be pure. He or she cannot be sullied by the mendacious, the rapacious and the salacious. One must be true to oneself and thereby truthful with others. One cannot treat others as an object, a thing to be used for self-satisfaction. And one cannot treat the relationship of self-to-other other than with clean hands, a clean heart and a clean mind. One cannot be a sinner, even one who confesses and accepts Jesus as his saviour.

But the shortcomings of the self are not the only problem. The New Jerusalem must be built on this earth. It is a city always bathed in light with the streets paved with gold. Whether one is righteous or unrighteous, all those who die approach the gates. They are now in Sheol, the realm of the dead awaiting the construction of the New Jerusalem.

The Sheol is distinctive. If the New Jerusalem is bathed in eternal light, the land before the gates is wrapped in darkness. Light does not penetrate. Rather, it is like a Black Hole that sucks up all the light around. There is nothing to see even if one could see. And there is nothing to hear, only a deathly silence. Surprisingly, it is a place without memories. That is important, for the judgments of the dead will not be made by others who died. For to judge these souls, one must have memories. The jury will consist of those who knew you in life and can truly remember who you were and what you did. The jury consists of those who knew you and live after you. Therefore, those in the room constituted my jury. They were akin to an Athenian court or a Jewish Sanhedrin. Those who remain on earth must judge my soul when it gets to Sheol.

The mistake most readers make is to interpret this vision as located in space. And interpret one must. For there are almost as many interpretations as there are souls residing in Sheol. Certainly, the metaphor is a spatial one. The walls which the gates cut through is made of jasper – red, orange, green and red – polished silicone gems, but neither rare nor valuable stones. The gates themselves are the valuable jewels – rare and fine. They are always nacreous and iridescent in the darkness of the Sheol. They are mammoth pearls, platelets of laminated aragonite reflecting each year of one’s life, but not one’s virtues or achievements.

That is the surprise. For pearls are an immune response to a foreign element that contaminates the purity of the mollusc. The mollusc forms a pearl sac to wall off the infestation. Pearls are analogous to the huge painting that hangs in my former library painted by my daughter, Shonagh. It is a painting of a phagocyte capturing an antigen to enwrap it in a cloudy and milky white haze.

Therefore, we are not to be judged primarily by our achievements, as the encomiums I received seemed to believe. The pearls reflect and hold fast the foreign bodies that prevent us from passing through the pearly gates. Instead we are hurled back into the darkness of the Sheol. We become after death the rephaim, not the giants of the past, but the shades, the shadows that haunt your presence and your future, that impact your lives because the foreign, alien and impure elements have been captured in the pearls to allow the rephaim to shadow the next generation and even the next until the rephaim gradually fade away forever.

For nothing unclean, nothing dirty, nothing untruthful, nothing vicious must pass through the pearly gates. Since we are indeed all sinners, we are obligated to use and transfer and imprint on the next generation our virtues. And that can only be done when our sins are expunged by those pearly gates and we are sent back as shadows to haunt those coming next. My legacy will not be the memories of me left behind, but of me expunged of sin by the pearly gates and, if I truly am to have an impact, of those expunged sins. That means that it is more important to recognize my sins rather than my accomplishments. The imprint by myself on the lives of others, by myself cleansed of sin and raised on a pedestal is not as important as recognizing the sins I committed that are captured and reflected in the pearly gates.

It is not me that is worthy of praise, but they who have absorbed the purified virtues and applied those virtues to constructing a better future. As I pass in the deep darkness before the pearly gates, they must reflect on the light reflected in those pearls of the captured and enwrapped vices that belong to the darkness, and allow the purified virtues to guide their lives.

That is not me. It will be the shadow of myself expunged of sin. But we must not forget the sins.

 

An Encomium by Natalie Fingerhut

 

As some of you know, I had the privilege of being raised by two Canadian giants, the late Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut and Professor Howard Adelman.

Last night, I had the honor of speaking at Howard’s 80th birthday.

_____________

Every Tuesday for two years, when I was 22, I spent the morning at Holy Blossom Temple working with the late Rabbi Plaut on a book about the moral foundations of refugee law. At precisely 11:00, Rabbi Plaut would call to me from his office on the second floor to the then library where I did my reading: “Miss Fingerhut, you had better leave now or you will be late for the professor.” Never one to argue with Rabbi Plaut, I dutifully packed up my books, waved goodbye, walked to the Eglinton West subway, north to the last stop, and got on the York University bus which dropped me off in front of York Lanes and up to the 3rd floor to the Centre for Refugee Studies and begin my afternoon work as Professor Howard Adelman’s research assistant.

Those Tuesdays were quite the education. But it was an education that I did not fully appreciate at the time. It is only now, as I approach 50, that I can fully grasp what it meant to have these two Canadian heroes in my life, to have access to their unique minds when my own mind was still forming, and most important, to watch them do. And watch Howard I did. In meetings where a tough decision had to be made, he would listen to opinions and then actually make a decision himself thereby illustrating to me the benefits of benevolent dictatorship. I watched him take on all intellectual comers and noted the confidence he had when holding court because he knew that he had done his homework and that taught me that if I wanted to be taken seriously by people like Howard Adelman, I had to be very prepared. And I watched him take on people like a leader of the Heritage Front who he disarmed without raising his voice. I learned through Howard that research, confidence, and a big personality equaled getting big things done. That I was in awe of Howard is an understatement.

To this day, I’m not quite sure what inspired a pretty nutty decision on my part to take a graduate philosophy class with Howard during my MA. I was a struggling history student at U of T and figured I had nothing to lose. So, in I walked into a class filled with philosophy graduate students in a course entitled: The Philosophy of Refugees. I knew nothing about philosophy. Nothing. But I knew that I wanted Howard to think I was a smart kid, and so rather than shutting down the bars on Queen St like I had so many times in past, I shut down Robarts Library.

I wound up getting an A in Howard’s class. I was so shocked that I showed the York University bus driver the mark to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.

But the most significant lesson that I learned from Howard was simply this: You can’t just talk. You have to act. It likely drives my husband and kids crazy that I have taken this to be my motto in life, but given the teacher, how could I not. When someone is suffering, when a good cause needs a hand, I channel Howard, and I act.

Howard: it has been one of the greatest and unique privileges of my life to have known you as I did, as a lost kid who has tried as an adult to give what you gave to me to others. There is little that I have done that does not have your imprint on it.
Thank you.

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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.

 

Israel-Diaspora Relations Part III Palestinians

Israel-Diaspora Relations Part III Palestinians

by

Howard Adelman

In addition to her TV interview last Wednesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) also addressed the Knesset on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that recently passed a resolution declaring Hevron and the Cave of the patriarchs (Mearat Hamachpelah) as “endangered Palestinian heritage sites.” UNESCO is an esteemed international agency based in Paris. Its declared objectives are “to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific, and cultural reforms in order to increase universal respect for justice, the rule of law and human rights.” Was the resolution, widely considered in Israel to be so, an anti-Israel motion? If so, why is UNESCO engaged in such activities?

This was not the only resolution of this type passed by UNESCO. In the same week, in Kraków, Poland, of all places, where the scene of the Nazis ruthlessly clearing out the ghetto of Jews and shipping most residents to the gas chambers in Belzec, were portrayed in Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (remember the girl in the red coat), the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (UNESCO-WHC) voted to have the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the Old City of Hevron inscribed as a Palestinian world heritage site. The Committee also determined that the site was also “in danger.” From what and why?

The latter motion establishing the tomb as an endangered heritage site was passed by the 21 countries [Angola, Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso, Croatia, Cuba, Finland, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zimbabwe] 12-3 (those 12 are easily picked out of the list since they regularly support anti-Israel motions) with 6 countries abstaining. Though the vote usually takes place by a show of hands, Poland, Croatia and Jamaica requested a secret ballot. Israeli Ambassador Carmel Shama-Hacohen stormed the chair, accusing the Polish diplomat in charge of failing to conduct a truly secret ballot. The vote was not held behind a curtain; ballots were placed in an envelope in full view of the delegates. The chair called in security.

The issue was NOT declaring Hevron, the Cave and the Tomb heritage sites. Hevron was declared to be an Islamic city. It was the third site recognized by UNESCO as located in the “State of Palestine.” Whatever the history being recognized or not recognized, the resolutions were clearly political rather than educational and cultural in nature. Israel was deliberately disassociated from a site widely recognized, certainly in the Torah, as the burial grounds of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel. Israeli diplomats called it “an ugly display of discrimination, and an act of aggression against the Jewish people.”

Upon passage of the resolution, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki hailed a Palestinian diplomatic victory. “Despite the aggressive Israeli campaign, spreading lies, distorting and falsifying facts about the Palestinian right, the world recognized our right to register Hevron and the Ibrahimi Mosque under Palestinian sovereignty and on the World Heritage List.” For Maliki, the issue was about Palestinian sovereignty and NOT about the location of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs.

The issue was also about sovereignty when the same committee earlier in the week explicitly denied Israel’s claim to the Old City of Jerusalem. In May, UNESCO’s executive board ratified a 2016 resolution denying Israel, not only legal, but also any historical link to Jerusalem. Israel was deemed an “occupying power,” a designation never applied to Jordan when that country overran the Old City in the 1948 war. UNESCO regularly criticizes Israel for its archaeological work and excavations in Jerusalem and Hevron.

However, the Committee did not explicitly deny the connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem. The Jerusalem resolution recognized the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions.” Further, the Temple Mount compound was not referred to solely as “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif” as in a 2016 resolution that called the Temple Mount “a Muslim holy site of worship.” Hevron, Bethlehem and the Old City of Jerusalem were all defined that way.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry decried the decisions and insisted that Jerusalem remained the capital of the Jewish people. “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and no decision by UNESCO can change that reality. It is sad, unnecessary and pathetic.” For Palestinians, UNESCO votes offered additional proof that in the minds of the international community, Jerusalem was “the capital of the occupation.”

Did it matter that Avraham and Sarah, Yitzhak and Rivka, Yaakov and Leah, and even Adam and Eve, were allegedly buried in the cave, or that Avraham bought the Cave from Ephron the Hittite long before Islam existed? One has no sense from the debate that this belief and cultural identification was relevant let alone crucial to the decision. Recognition of Palestinian sovereignty was at stake.

However, whatever the myth or historical reality, the debate upped the ante in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Reuven Rivlin of Israel may have tweeted: “UNESCO seems intent on sprouting anti-Jewish lies, while it remains silent as the region’s heritage is destroyed by brutal extremists,” but Palestinians could boast of another significant political victory in an important international forum piled on top of winning membership in UNESCO in 2011. The cost, however, has been another repeated gesture politicizing a cultural and historical issue. When debates over memory, history and culture are brought into the centre of a conflict, the stakes are raised enormously. With regard to the sites mentioned above, unlike any other one recognized as a heritage site (Aztec sites in Mexico City are but one example; Cordoba in Spain is another), there was never any attempt to deny the historic connection to the site. In all three cases in Israel/Palestine, the Jewish connections to the sites were omitted. The Ibrahimi mosque in Hevron, known as the Sanctuary of Abraham, built in the 14th century, however, is identified.

In UNESCO commemorating sites, Battir, called Beitar in the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome and even in Arabic dubbed “Khurbel al-Yahud (the Jewish ruin), is recognized to be “representative of many centuries of culture and human interaction with the environment.” Cultural genocide is the systematic destruction of traditions, values, language, and other elements which make a one group of people distinct from other groups. It is both the height of irony that an organization like UNESCO, in order to advance a Palestinian political position, finds it fit to extinguish Jewish historical and cultural links to sites in Israel and Palestine. Why would even Jews who defend the right of Palestinians to have their own state be complicit in cultural genocide? There are also political repercussions. The more Israelis and other Jews alienated from around the world, the less likely they are to support a Palestinian state alongside Israel if cultural genocide is a consequence. Are any of these sites “culturally endangered” as Palmyra has been in Syria?

UNESCO does recognize many other sites in Israel as having a Jewish connection and as heritage sites – Tel Aviv as the White City and foremost representative of the Bauhaus or International style, Masada, the Necropolis of Beit Shean, and six others, but none on the other side of the Green Line. When the fight becomes a cultural and historical one and not simply political, the very purpose of UNESCO is threatened. But perhaps that is inherent in UNESCO. In its charter, culture, science and education are viewed as ways to advance political objectives, even as those objectives are spelled out in the lofty language of freedom, rights and the rule of law.  UNESCO memorialized Ernesto Che Guevera in the World International Documentary Collection even though he has been widely accused of committing massacres by the Cuban community in Miami. On the other hand, it was Israel which could be said to have instigated the process by designating the Cave of the Patriarchs, Hevron, Rachel’s Tomb and Bethlehem, as “national” heritage sites in 2010.

Ever since that date, UNESCO and Israel have been engaged in a cultural war, but one in which UNESCO has engaged in fostering cultural genocide. In January 2014, UNESCO escalated the conflict beyond Israel and swept all Jews into the maelstrom when Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, initially and indefinitely postponed a Paris exhibit promoted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center on the 3,500 year relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. On the basis of this totally obvious bias, indeed official endorsement of cultural genocide, last month both Israel and the US announced that each would be withdrawing from UNESCO, the US for the second time – it had rejoined in 2002 after an absence of 18 years. Even Christians have become upset with UNESCO when it named the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as a “Palestinian” heritage site, ignoring the fact that Jesus was a Jew.

It is against this background that the venom Tzipi Hotovely spewed against UNESCO should be viewed as well as Princeton University Hillel’s cancellation of Hotovely’s speech on the day it was to be given at Hillel’s Center for Jewish Life. The speech was cancelled under pressure from the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP). Hotovely belongs to the Israeli hard-right. She is opposed to creating an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. She does not disregard any Palestinian sovereignty claims to the land as AJP stated; she strongly opposes such claims. She was in Princeton to explicitly make the case that settlements are not an obstacle to peace. (Even though I oppose the settlements, I would even insist that they are not the prime obstacle to peace.)

The effort to deny Hotovely the right to speak (she did speak, but under the auspices of Chabad) blackens the reputation of progressives at the same time as it deepens the chasm between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. AJP claimed that Hotovely’s stance damages the prospect of peace, something on which I would agree. Nevertheless, I defend her right to advance her position just as I defend the right of Palestinians to advocate their own One State solution. I do not have to attend, I do not have to participate in such occasions. But they do not foster violence or cultural genocide. Both sides offer fundamental differences over sovereignty.

However much I disagree with Hotovely, however much I oppose the government’s claims on behalf of the settlements, however much I declaim her contention that peace has not yet been achieved between Israelis and Palestinians because of incitement and a generation of young Palestinians who were not educated for hope, I have not read any evidence that she practices cultural genocide and denied any Islamic connection to the Haram al-Sharif in her address in the Knesset directly aimed at Palestinian MKs. Was it not enough to disagree with her over giving priority to Jewish claims to the site?  Even if one radically disagreed with her, she was not being uncivil as she claimed that Palestinians are “thieves of history” and accused them of attempting to Islamicize Jewish history. I go further than her. I claim that the Palestinian efforts are part of a campaign of cultural genocide. I strongly support a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Should I be silenced if I characterize the efforts in UNESCO as advancing a program of cultural genocide even it if is for what I regard as a worthy political purpose?

AJP in its open letter in The Princetonian expressed its shame that the Committee on Jewish Life (CJL) at Princeton misrepresented “our Jewish community’s politics and values. We will not sit by quietly as the Israeli government continues to entrench its control over Palestinians. We will not be silent as members of our Princeton community further these hateful and racist policies.” Subsequently, AJP claimed that it was not its intention either to censor MK Tzipi Hotovely or to cancel the event, but “to highlight the CJL’s systematic silencing of leftist voices on campus through uneven application of its ostensibly neutral Israel policy.” There was no evidence that I found that they supported Hotovely’s right to speak.

Further, no one said that AJP should be silent. No one said they should not oppose the Israeli government efforts to control Palestinian land or to even deny that it is Palestinian land. But that does not make the opposing position racist. Even more importantly, no group, absolutely no group, can claim to speak for the Jewish community as a whole, especially for its values.

Nothing so exacerbates the Israeli-Diaspora divide than the claim that Jews should speak with a singular voice, that Jews should be united. Hotovely to her credit, however disagreeable I find her views, has not insisted on a unified Jewish voice but a clearer opportunity to have the hard-right voice heard. In my view, nothing is more divisive among Jews than the argument about Jewish unity and who is most responsible for promoting that disunity and who is in the best position to defend that unity. The reality is that Jews have never been united.

Nor should nor need they be. The quest for unity is a chimera and itself a very divisive issue.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

by

Howard Adelman

This section of the Torah offers a plethora of topics to consider. I offer a dozen:

  1. Why Jacob left Eretz Israel for Harar as an introduction to Israel-Diaspora Relations
  2. God of Time and Place
  3. Jacob’s Dream of the Ladder as an impetus to discuss horizontality versus verticality and the stairway or gateway to heaven; the ups and downs of belief
  4. Jacob’s Conditional Contract with God rather than Categorical Covenant
  5. Rachel at the Well
  6. Beauty
  7. Laban’s Deceit and Tricking Jacob
  8. Jacob’s Relationship to his Two Wives
  9. Jacob and his Uncle Laban
  10. Proxy Wives
  11. Conceiving and Naming Children
  12. Jacob’s Revenge on Laban: Streaked, Speckled and Spotted Young

Though tempted to write on the first (Israel-Diaspora Relations), I have chosen to write on beauty and reserve the other topic for another time. The latter seems a pressing matter given Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipy Hotovely’s allegedly very recent reprimand of American Jews for failing to send their children to “fight for their country.” However, it is also a very deep and profound political issue on which I want to reflect at greater length. Beauty, on the other hand, appears to be a relatively superficial issue.

Verses 16 and 17 of Chapter 29 of Genesis reads as follows:

16. Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.   טזוּלְלָבָ֖ן שְׁתֵּ֣י בָנ֑וֹת שֵׁ֤ם הַגְּדֹלָה֙ לֵאָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַקְּטַנָּ֖ה רָחֵֽל:
17. Leah’s eyes were tender, but Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion.   יזוְעֵינֵ֥י לֵאָ֖ה רַכּ֑וֹת וְרָחֵל֨ הָֽיְתָ֔ה יְפַת־תֹּ֖אַר וִיפַ֥ת מַרְאֶֽה:

In the Plaut translation, Leah’s eyes are said to be רַכּ֑וֹת – translated as weak rather than tender. The adjective seems to have the same root as Rachel’s name, that is, רַך meaning tender, delicate or soft

Why is the term translated as “weak”? And what is the relationship between Rachel’s name and the depiction of Leah’s eyes? Do eyes reflect the soul? In a footnote, Plaut appears to undermine the translation in the body of the text: “It seems preferable to translate this as “tender eyes”, for the contrast is not between ugliness and beauty but between two types of attraction.” Plaut offers one escape from the apparent conclusion in the plain reading of the text that the ancient Israelites placed a great deal of importance on superficial beauty, that is, beauty that is on the surface, that appears, and not beauty simply as a manifestation of an “inner” beauty.

There are many cop-outs from this conclusion. There are different types of beauty. Beauty is only skin deep and what counts is inner beauty. Or beauty is a temptation offered by the devil.

The Greeks had a different escape route. Beauty was a transcendental value rather than phenomenological. Hence, what counted was eternal beauty, beauty that was timeless. In yesterday’s Toronto Daily Star, there was a story about Cindy Crawford at fifty and her “timeless beauty,” that is, as magnificent in her appearance at the age of fifty as she was when she was twenty. In this week’s Tablet.  An article on “Bombshell,” a documentary on Hedy Lamarr, a remote and haunting beauty of Jewish descent from an even earlier era than most readers can remember, told a tale of the most gorgeous woman in Hollywood at the time. But it is also a story of the brilliance behind the glamour, for Hedy Lamarr was also an amateur inventor who, with her colleague, the composer George Antheil, invented a frequency hopping radio device, the necessary precursor to wireless communication and WiFi. It was their contribution to the war effort and the desire to destroy Hitler.

Did Hedy Lamarr’s bewitching beauty and ascent into Hollywood’s stratosphere undermine her creative intellectual genius or even her development as an actress as she perfected her portrait of vixens and sultry and sensuous women climaxing with her role as Delilah in the biblical story of her relationship with Sampson? Can such beauty become so unearthly than it undermines productivity altogether and ends up sending its possessor into seclusion?

For the Greeks, beauty sat alongside two other transcendental values – Goodness and Truth. The main philosophic disciplines were, therefore Aesthetics, Ethics and Logic or the Science of Reason. The three are related to what we feel, what we desire and what we think. In Plato’s Phaedrus, these three primary drives as parts of the soul and corresponding transcendental values allow humans to soar towards the heavens.

There is also a hierarchy among the three, beauty being the least of them and reason the highest with goodness placed betwixt the two others. We progress from the body which is fair, to fairness and then to the highest rational forms which are both fair in appearance as well as in essence so that the shapely and the good together become the absolute beauty of truth. Aristotle connected each respectively with productivity, practicality and theory. Immanuel Kant would connect the three with judgement, practical reason and pure reason as a priori transcendental conditions of being-in-the-world rather than ways of rising above this world.

There is no indication in the Torah that beauty has a transcendental value in any of the above senses, though rabbis would later place the primary emphasis on “inner beauty”. But I am concerned with beauty as it appears, as it is expressed in the construction of the Mishkan later, in the depiction of Rachel (as well as Rebecca and Sarah), but also in the portrait of Absalom who is depicted as a man of beauty but NOT of morality.

One apparent message of the Torah is that beauty is indeed related to productivity as Aristotle claimed, but in a very opposite way since there is such a close relationship in the Torah stories between the beauty of these women and their incapacity, in the case of Rachel and Sarah, to have children. Did their beauty in some way connect with their being barren? In Aristotle, beauty is connected with the products of craftsmen. In the case of women, do the founding fathers objectify women and regard them as things, as objects to be admired rather than as agents? Did their beauty somehow relate to their lack of agency in producing progeny?

Why then does the Torah appear to ascribe high value to beauty? Is it related to or counterpoised against motherhood, even if women, particularly beautiful ones, seem intent on bringing beauty into all aspects of life. Does beauty serve to obscure other qualities she possesses? In the Torah, Sarah’s disdain of what appear to be false promises and her jealousy of Hagar are on full display. So is Rebecca’s initiative, goodness and generosity, but also her favouritism and conniving. And what of Rachel?

In the biblical text itself, another notion of beauty would appear to come to the fore, not beauty as either an adjunct of productivity or a subversive force undermining it, but beauty itself as a deception, as futile, as a distraction. Beauty is not just aligned with malignant propensities, but is itself a danger. What makes a woman good – that she be God-fearing; this is what counts, not beauty. Yet, as my daughter’s essay on the Mishkan illustrated, in the construction of the tabernacle, enormous emphasis was placed on texture and colour, on decoration and beauty. The Torah suggests that emphasizing the spiritual at the expense of the physical, the internal at the expense of the external and especially physical beauty, is misconceived. Beauty penetrates the greatest inner sanctum of the Jewish spiritual realm.

There is no contradiction between external beauty and inner spiritual beauty. But neither is there any necessary correlation. However, there are risks associated with beauty – that powerful men may be attracted by the beauty of one’s wife as in the case of Sarah in the stories of Abraham and Pharaoh and of Abraham and Abimelech. However, there are also advantages as well as risks as depicted in the Book of Esther when the latter’s beauty bewitched King Ahasuerus.

Though brought up in Talmud Torah to believe that beauty, quoting Proverbs, was indeed vain – which made beauty all the more attractive to me – beauty has come to have enormous value to me as it had for Abraham, for Isaac and for Jacob. That value is not accompanied by connecting beauty with moral excellence. Nor is the value based on considering women as having different kinds of beauty or only being beautiful if she has an internal beauty. Finally, that beauty and attention to it is not considered by me to be a moral failure. Rachel was shapely and beautiful to look at. That beauty was not confined to women as Joseph had his mother’s beauty. Was that why he was Jacob’s favourite? But Joseph flaunted his beauty; Rachel did not.

The Torah, unlike the Greeks, did not give a transcendental value to beauty. Neither was beauty a reflection of an internal character – Ruth was perhaps the most “beautiful” woman in the Bible in that sense though not described as physically beautiful. There seems to be no indication of external appearances reflecting or emanating inner goodness. There is no inherent connection between physical beauty and inner moral fibre. Beauty just is, there to be appreciated, but a characteristic tied to both risk and opportunity, a factor which may be crucial to a story since Jacob apparently preferred Rachel over Leah because of her beauty. But the Kingdom of David would descend from Leah, not Rachel. Of the children of Jacob’s wives and concubines, Levi and Judah are both children of Leah.

Beauty is just part of reality, to be admired and appreciated but not denigrated, to inspire both the good as well as the bad. The Greeks fought a ten-year war with the Persians because of the kidnapping of the beauty, Helen, but there is no inherent moral lesson, positive or negative, in the depictions of beauty in the Torah. On the other hand, if one only looks at outward appearances and fails to take into account the inner spirit of an individual, that is a failure. Rachel like Rebecca, though different, had a very vital inner spirit as well as external beauty. In the Torah, there is no moral lesson to be derived from the appearance of beauty.

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

by

Howard Adelman

This section of the Torah offers a plethora of topics to consider. I offer a dozen:

  1. Why Jacob left Eretz Israel for Harar as an introduction to Israel-Diaspora Relations
  2. God of Time and Place
  3. Jacob’s Dream of the Ladder as an impetus to discuss horizontality versus verticality and the stairway or gateway to heaven; the ups and downs of belief
  4. Jacob’s Conditional Contract with God rather than Categorical Covenant
  5. Rachel at the Well
  6. Beauty
  7. Laban’s Deceit and Tricking Jacob
  8. Jacob’s Relationship to his Two Wives
  9. Jacob and his Uncle Laban
  10. Proxy Wives
  11. Conceiving and Naming Children
  12. Jacob’s Revenge on Laban: Streaked, Speckled and Spotted Young

Though tempted to write on the first (Israel-Diaspora Relations), I have chosen to write on beauty and reserve the other topic for another time. The latter seems a pressing matter given Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipy Hotovely’s very recent reprimand of American Jews for failing to send their children to “fight for their country.” However, it is also a very deep and profound political issue on which I want to reflect at greater length. Beauty, on the other hand, appears to be a relatively superficial issue.

Verses 16 and 17 of Chapter 29 of Genesis reads as follows:

16. Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.   טזוּלְלָבָ֖ן שְׁתֵּ֣י בָנ֑וֹת שֵׁ֤ם הַגְּדֹלָה֙ לֵאָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַקְּטַנָּ֖ה רָחֵֽל:
17. Leah’s eyes were tender, but Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion.   יזוְעֵינֵ֥י לֵאָ֖ה רַכּ֑וֹת וְרָחֵל֨ הָֽיְתָ֔ה יְפַת־תֹּ֖אַר וִיפַ֥ת מַרְאֶֽה:

In the Plaut translation, Leah’s eyes are said to be רַכּ֑וֹת – translated as weak rather than tender. The adjective seems to have the same root as Rachel’s name, that is, רַך meaning tender, delicate or soft

Why is the term translated as “weak”? And what is the relationship between Rachel’s name and the depiction of Leah’s eyes? Do eyes reflect the soul? In a footnote, Plaut appears to undermine the translation in the body of the text: “It seems preferable to translate this as “tender eyes”, for the contrast is not between ugliness and beauty but between two types of attraction.” Plaut offers one escape from the apparent conclusion in the plain reading of the text that the ancient Israelites placed a great deal of importance on superficial beauty, that is, beauty that is on the surface, that appears, and not beauty simply as a manifestation of an “inner” beauty.

There are many cop-outs from this conclusion. There are different types of beauty. Beauty is only skin deep and what counts is inner beauty. Or beauty is a temptation offered by the devil.

The Greeks had a different escape route. Beauty was a transcendental value rather than phenomenological. Hence, what counted was eternal beauty, beauty that was timeless. In yesterday’s Toronto Daily Star, there was a story about Cindy Crawford at fifty and her “timeless beauty,” that is, as magnificent in her appearance at the age of fifty as she was when she was twenty. In this week’s Tablet.  An article on “Bombshell,” a documentary on Hedy Lamarr, a remote and haunting beauty of Jewish descent from an even earlier era than most readers can remember, told a tale of the most gorgeous woman in Hollywood at the time. But it is also a story of the brilliance behind the glamour, for Hedy Lamarr was also an amateur inventor who, with her colleague, the composer George Antheil, invented a frequency hopping radio device, the necessary precursor to wireless communication and WiFi. It was their contribution to the war effort and the desire to destroy Hitler.

Did Hedy Lamarr’s bewitching beauty and ascent into Hollywood’s stratosphere undermine her creative intellectual genius or even her development as an actress as she perfected her portrait of vixens and sultry and sensuous women climaxing with her role as Delilah in the biblical story of her relationship with Sampson? Can such beauty become so unearthly than it undermines productivity altogether and ends up sending its possessor into seclusion?

For the Greeks, beauty sat alongside two other transcendental values – Goodness and Truth. The main philosophic disciplines were, therefore Aesthetics, Ethics and Logic or the Science of Reason. The three are related to what we feel, what we desire and what we think. In Plato’s Phaedrus, these three primary drives as parts of the soul and corresponding transcendental values allow humans to soar towards the heavens.

There is also a hierarchy among the three, beauty being the least of them and reason the highest with goodness placed betwixt the two others. We progress from the body which is fair, to fairness and then to the highest rational forms which are both fair in appearance as well as in essence so that the shapely and the good together become the absolute beauty of truth. Aristotle connected each respectively with productivity, practicality and theory. Immanuel Kant would connect the three with judgement, practical reason and pure reason as a priori transcendental conditions of being-in-the-world rather than ways of rising above this world.

There is no sense in the Torah that beauty has a transcendental value in any of these senses, though rabbis would later place the primary emphasis on “inner beauty”. But I am concerned with beauty as it appears, as it is expressed in the construction of the Mishkan later, in the depiction of Rachel (as well as Rebecca and Sarah), but also in the portrait of Absalom who is portrayed as a man of beauty but NOT of morality.

One apparent message of the Torah is that beauty is indeed related to productivity as Aristotle claimed, but in a very opposite way since there is such a close relationship in the Torah stories between the beauty of these women and their incapacity, in the case of Rachel and Sarah, to have children. Did their beauty in some way connect with their being barren? In Aristotle, beauty is connected with the products of craftsmen. In the case of women, do the founding fathers objectify women and regard them as things, as objects to be admired rather than as agents? Did their beauty somehow relate to their lack of agency in producing progeny?

Why then does the Torah appear to ascribe high value to beauty? Is it related to or counterpoised against motherhood, even if women, particularly beautiful ones, seem intent on bringing beauty into all aspects of life. Does beauty serve to obscure other qualities she possesses? In the Torah, Sarah’s disdain of what appear to be false promises and her jealousy of Hagar are on full display. So is Rebecca’s initiative, goodness and generosity, but also her favouritism and conniving. And what of Rachel?

In the biblical text itself, another notion of beauty would appear to come to the fore, not beauty as either an adjunct of productivity or a subversive force undermining it, but beauty itself as a deception, as futile, as a distraction. Beauty is not just aligned with malignant propensities, but is itself a danger. What makes a woman good – that she be God-fearing; this is what counts, not beauty. Yet, as my daughter’s essay on the Mishkan illustrated, in the construction of the tabernacle, enormous emphasis was placed on texture and colour, on decoration and beauty. The Torah suggests that emphasizing the spiritual at the expense of the physical, the internal at the expense of the external and especially physical beauty, is misconceived. Beauty penetrates the greatest inner sanctum of the Jewish spiritual realm.

There is no contradiction between external beauty and inner spiritual beauty. But neither is there any necessary correlation. However, there are risks associated with beauty – that powerful men may be attracted by the beauty of one’s wife as in the case of Sarah in the stories of Abraham and Pharaoh and of Abraham and Abimelech. However, there are also advantages as well as risks as depicted in the Book of Esther when the latter’s beauty bewitched King Ahasuerus.

Though brought up in Talmud Torah to believe that beauty, quoting Proverbs, was indeed vain – which made beauty all the more attractive to me – beauty has come to have enormous value to me as it had for Abraham, for Isaac and for Jacob. That value is not accompanied by an ethical relief of connecting beauty with moral excellence, with considering women as having different kinds of beauty or, even more disruptive, of a woman only being beautiful if she has an internal beauty, and, finally, that beauty and attention to it is a moral failure. Rachel was shapely and beautiful to look at. That beauty was not confined to women as Joseph had his mother’s beauty. Was that why he was Jacob’s favourite? But Jacob flaunted his beauty; Rachel did not.

The Torah, unlike the Greeks, did not give a transcendental value to beauty. Neither was beauty a reflection of an internal character – Ruth was perhaps the most “beautiful” woman in the Bible in that sense though not described as physically beautiful. There seems to be no indication of external appearances reflecting or emanating inner goodness. There is no inherent connection between physical beauty and inner moral fibre. Beauty just is, there to be appreciated, but a characteristic tied to both risk and opportunity, a factor which may be crucial to a story since Jacob apparently preferred Rachel over Leah because of her beauty. But the Kingdom of David would descend from Leah, not Rachel. Of the children of Jacob’s wives and concubines, Levi and Judah are both children of Leah.

Beauty is just part of reality, to be admired and appreciated but not denigrated, to inspire both the good as well as the bad. The Greeks fought a ten-year war with the Persians because of the kidnapping of the beauty, Helen, but there is no inherent moral lesson, positive or negative, in the depictions of beauty in the Torah. On the other hand, if one only looks at outward appearances and fails to take into account the inner spirit of an individual, that is a failure. Rachel like Rebecca, though different, had a very vital inner spirit as well as external beauty. There is no moral lesson to be derived from the appearance of beauty.

 

The Emotional Frame and the Akedah

The Emotional Frame and the Akedah

by

Howard Adelman

Today is American Thanksgiving. When President Abraham Lincoln was immersed in writing what would become his famous Gettysburg Address after the American Civil War had dragged on through one of the worst periods in the history of that conflict “of unequaled magnitude and severity,” he issued the proclamation on 3 October 1863 that made the last Thursday in November (contrary to the widely held notion that the holiday is on the third Thursday) a national holiday, a nation-wide day to celebrate and give thanks for the bounty Americans had received and to establish, in the words of the editor Sarah Josepha Hale, “a great Union (my italics) Festival of America.” Americans were asked to remember that extraordinary bounty, a remembrance which “cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”

Lincoln wanted to remind all his fellow Americans that outside the horrific theatre of the civil war, that conflict had been confined to America and did not turn into an international conflict, that throughout the war, the rule of law had been maintained, the productivity of the country had increased as had the range of human freedom. He attributed that beneficence to the mercy of God. He asked God to extend that mercy, “to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

Six months before that proclamation, in Paris, James Abbott McNeill Whistler exhibited at the Salon des Refusés (the display of art rejected by the Royal Academy but nevertheless held under the sponsorship of Napoleon III) his first famous, indeed, at that time, infamous, “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl” alongside the even more, perhaps most famous (and scandalous at the time) work by Édouard Manet, “Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” The Luncheon on the Grass. Please view on the internet copies of both paintings, but particularly Whistler’s.

Just as Thanksgiving should be viewed in the context of opposition, opposition between horror and beneficence, contrast between violent conflict and peaceful harmony, so too should both the Whistler and Manet paintings be examined for their tranquil harmony even though Whistler’s red-haired mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, poses on top of a white bear rug with the menacing head of the bear facing us with jaws agape. In the Manet painting as well, one views vibrant oppositions: nude or partially clad women, one in the foreground and one in the back, sitting on the grass or dressing in the background with two fully-dressed men. The great spots of light contrast with both the filtered light in the background and the dark leaves and trees of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

In both paintings, what stands out most is their stark simplicity. Neither painting has a message. Neither painting is primarily about the subject matter. Though each carefully, indeed brilliantly, simply represents precisely what you see, both have instigated enormous debates about their “meaning.” Though each painting has symbols aplenty, it is the atmosphere, the composition, that is most compelling in each even as the woman in white in Whistler’s painting boldly gazes out directly at the viewer as if confronting the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

That is the way I invite readers to examine the story of the binding of Isaac. Don’t read into it. Read it. Absorb the atmosphere and bracket the powerful, almost overwhelming, interpositions into the text.

As I have written before, the tale begins by referring to the words or narratives that precede it and provide the frame for the story. Those stories were about different sets of emotions. What stands out in the Akedah tale is the seeming absence of emotion. It is a painting of white on white.

Initially, there is a puzzle: “God put Abraham to the test.”  What is that test? In the dominant interpretation, God was either betting, or was behaving as if he were betting, with Satan to demonstrate to everyone, especially his arch enemy, that even if God asked Abraham to make the most extreme sacrifice possible, Abraham would not refrain from doing so. Abraham was God’s loving servant.

But God does not command Abraham to do anything. He requests. He says, “Please.” It is not a test of obedience because no obedience was requested or demanded. Abraham had already said to God when he was called, “Hinaini.” Here I am. I am ready and willing. In what follows, no histrionics take place, never mind extremes of emotion such as fear and trembling. We are shaken up, we shudder as Isaac would soon do, when we suddenly come to a realization that wakes us up to a new reality and a new sense of who we are. There is no shuddering in the entire story. Instead, as God lays out the mission he has set before Abraham, the overwhelming sense we have is of tranquility. An atmosphere of serenity pervades the story and stands in stark contrast to the content.

Do not be distracted by the chatter. What we see before us is simply an apple. It is a fact. God asks Abraham to take his only son whom he loves to Mount Moriah as an offering. The response: no tearing of hair; no guffawing at the sheer absurdity of the request; no challenge to God for seemingly betraying all His promises. You would think that Abraham was simply taking his son on a camping trip. Supplies are organized. Camels are saddled. There is no sense that Abraham is depressed at the request or even saddened by it.

Is what is happening a test of Abraham’s faith in God? Is God’s relationship to Abraham on a parallel with Abimelech, based on a conditional trust and expectations each had of the other? There is no sense that this is a tale about trust and distrust for Abraham. For there are no contingencies introduced which question that trust. For God and Abraham are bound by a covenant. Covenants are not conditional. They are categorical. God’s request is not a categorical order. It is the relationship that is categorical. There is not an iota of distrust suggested in the story even as God’s trust in Abraham is being tested.

Gunther Plaut in his Commentary wrote that the story is about “adherence without faltering, obedience with complete trust.” That is a contradiction. For if Abraham is simply doing what he does to demonstrate absolute obedience, where is there any indication of possible slippage? If Sören Kierkegaard is correct in asserting that Abraham did what he did, “for God’s sake because God required this proof of his faith,” one cannot help noting that if proof was required, where is there any sense of doubt?

We are not reading about a trial. We are not reading about temptation any more than we do when we look at Whistler’s or Manet’s paintings referred to above. For what is apparent in each of those pieces of art is the absolute absence of any eroticism in a situation which on the surface might be read as erotic. What is apparent in the Akedah story is that there is no sign of any slippage in Abraham’s adherence to the covenant. So how can it be a test of trust versus distrust. Just as the scene is totally serene, it also absolutely lacks any display that Abraham is troubled by God’s request.

There is no crying and no raucous laughter. The scene is tranquil. There is no fear and trembling on display nor any anger. There is no sign of distrust or any indication that Abraham’s faith is being tested. Abraham tells his servants to wait for them and “we will go up there and worship and we will return.” This is not a Job story. When Isaac asked, “where is the sheep?” it is just a query about a fact, a necessary fact without which the sacrifice could not be performed.

Nor is there any apprehension. When the ram appears in the thicket, there is no surprise. Suddenly there is action. The two build an altar. Abraham binds his son and the old frail man lays him on the altar, not a child but a grown man. We become incredulous. And then the shock. Abraham raises his knife. There is no real build up to this dramatic moment. God through his angel stops the proceeding. Now there is a command. Do not raise your hand against the boy. God was being tested. Now God knew he did not have to fear that Abraham would withhold his son. The son in that instant became part of the covenant. The ceremony of passing the baton has been completed. There was no need to repeat the circumcision ceremony and even draw a drop of blood.

Thus, there would be progeny. Thus, there would be freedom from fear. There never was an iota of distrust in Abraham. And suddenly, just as the story lacked any real build-up, the narrative shifts. Children are born. Nations are created. And the foundation of it all is now not justice but mercy. Civil wars are fought over different senses of justice. Thanksgiving is held to celebrate God’s mercy and the bounty He provides. What we just read was a simple story of white on white about the absence of raw and basic emotions. People may read it as a story about obedience and demonstrating one’s faith. People may read it as a story about deep and profound emotional turmoil. People may also widely believe that American Thanksgiving is held on the third Thursday of November. But it is on the fourth.

What matters is not what people widely believe, but the story itself and its context. It is a painting of white on white and a celebration of God’s mercy rather than His judgement.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Emotional Frame of the Akedah

The Emotional Frame of the Akedah

by

Howard Adelman

In my last series of blogs before the Aside, I suggested that the four previous narratives prior to the actual story of the binding of Isaac provided a frame for understanding the story of the requested sacrifice. I suggest that the frame is an emotional one. Further, the frame encompasses the full range of basic human emotions which can be divided into four sets. (Research at Glasgow University confirmed that the 42 facial muscles operate to convey four basic emotions.)

The four sets and their corresponding narratives are charted below. I have also included how each relates to four different (and exhaustive) functions in life.

Story                                Emotion                      Life Function

Sarah Laughs                   happy/sad                   replication (vs barren)

Sodom &Gomorrah        hope/fear                     survival (vs death)

Abimelech                       trust/distrust                detachment (vs disgust)

Birth of Isaac                   anticipation/surprise   action (vs passivity)

There is no dispute that the core of the portion, Vayera (Genesis 18:1-15) is about replicating oneself, having progeny. However, in Hebrew thought, in contrast to Aristotle, happiness is not a goal in itself; it is a by-product of other activities, the greatest of which is giving birth to a child. Happiness (eudaimonia for the ancient Greeks) does NOT depend on the cultivation of virtue. As both Sarah and Rebekah unequivocally demonstrate, petulance and conniving rather than virtue may accompany a defence of your child or even your favourite child.

The pure form of laughter is boundless, open and all-encompassing but does not in-itself encompass the whole of life as it did for Aristotle. It is one pole of one pair of emotions; there are three other pairs just as basic. Happiness does not depend on fulfilling certain requirements, even keeping God’s commandments. It is not a consequence of meeting certain conditions, including obeying God’s commandments or even getting an education in the Great Works. Happiness is an accompaniment of certain types of actions. Happiness is NOT the supreme good. It is NOT an ultimate end in life, an end-in-itself. But it is a basic good.

Basic happiness entails being calm and untroubled, a concept captured by the term serene. In my blog on the section which I called “Sarah Laughs,” I distinguished various senses of laughter. A different sense of laughter or joy is determined by that with which it is combined. When combined with hope, the joy turns into elation. When married to trust, we experience a state of satisfaction, somewhat different than serenity since there is an objective reference credited with the joy. If the joy is tied to something anticipated in the future, the joy can become ecstatic.

Sadness is the absence of any sense of joy. When sad, we have lost touch with ruach, with the spirit in life. We are lonely, depressed and dejected – low in spirit. When combined with fear, the sadness expresses itself as a sense of grief about the past and gloom toward the future. When married to distrust, sadness turns into a deep sorrow. When we find ourselves in a dark tunnel without a ray of light coming from any opening, we have sunk into depression.

Between the two polarities of happiness and sadness are to be found derision, jest, absurdity and mockery. Each is a different admixture of happiness and sadness.

Abraham expressed his derision at the idea that he and Sarah could have a child at their advanced ages by laughing so hard that he fell flat on his face at the opposite proposition and promise that the couple would indeed have a child. We, alongside first Abraham and then Sarah in the first of the quartet of stories, laugh at the improbable juxtaposition of two antithetical propositions:

Abraham and Sarah will have a child

Abraham and Sarah biologically cannot have a child.

In one sense, you cannot laugh at the miracle of life and not fall on your face in embarrassment.

Abraham does not tell Sarah of God’s patently absurd promise. Sarah, hiding in the wings, also laughs at the prophecy, but inwardly, not as a sight gag as with Abraham. That is the difference between Sarah’s and Abraham’s derision. Abraham openly laughs at the messenger who conveys the incredulous prophecy. Sarah takes the message and laughs mostly at herself, at her unattractiveness at the age of ninety, at the biological absurdity of having a child at that age, at the idea of suddenly, and miraculously, opening her womb that had for so long been closed to the possibility of reproduction. There is a huge gap between her bemusement and Abraham’s scoffing.

Does it matter that Sarah denigrates herself while Abraham rails at the message itself? Abraham is not reproved; Sarah, in contrast, is questioned and challenged. The difference does matter. Abraham guffaws; he engages in slapstick. Sarah only denigrates herself. With self-abnegation, her laughter hides her sadness. However, there is an irony. Though hiding, in expressing her dejection even if behind the mask of derision of a promise, Sarah opens herself to the possibility that her womb will be opened. She is prepared for the possibility that others will share in her joy. As she says at the birth of Isaac: “God made me laugh so that all that hear will laugh with me.” (21:6)

Contrast Sarah’s self-disparagement with the sneering with which Lot is greeted by his son-in-laws when he tells them that the end of the world as they know it is at hand. They treat a life-and-death message, not just a promise of reproduction, as a jest.

In the story of Abimelech, which evidently takes place sometime between the prophecy that Sarah will have a child and Isaac’s birth, Abimelech supposedly absconds with a withered ninety-year-old no-longer beautiful woman. How absurd! Either Abimelech was blind to her age and, as in a Hollywood comedy, saw only smooth skin and a luscious figure when objectively that was not the case (a version of Ramban’s interpretation), or Sarah actually returned to her former beauty and smooth and delicate skin. If Sarah giving birth at her age seems a natural impossibility, Sarah becoming attractive to Abimelech seems an absurdity. We, the readers, laugh even as source criticism tears apart the series of stories to root them in different original texts, as if the effort at combination ignored all contradictions instead of playing with them.

In the final stage of laughter, when Sarah gives birth to Isaac, and Sarah becomes “a woman of valour” and a vehicle of continuity, when the pain of labour is followed by the exhilaration of Isaac’s birth, Sarah laughs on that last day as derision, jest, absurdity come together in an inversion of self-mockery; a child is born. “What is closed opens [the lungs], and what is open closes” [dependency and blood supply through the umbilical cord.]

If the theme of laughter in its various forms and the move from the hidden to the open and transparent takes place against the theme of reproduction through the four tales of the frame, a very different theme is introduced in the Sodom and Gomorrah story – one of fear and anxiety, anger and regret as Lot and his family cope with death on a mass scale. Lot moved to a prosperous city to participate in its dream of the future and delight in the present. Below the surface of pleasure and hedonism, there was anxiety.

With God’s determination to eliminate the sinners as well as the sins, normal anticipation turned to apprehension and worry. The sons-in-law ignored the fear and treated the threats as a joke. In contrast, Abraham took the threat seriously and, out of care and empathy for the innocent, tried to bargain with God. He was unsuccessful. Those blind to the threat were destroyed. Even Lot’s wife, who remained nostalgically attached to what she had, became frozen and unable to move into the future. In Aristotle’s philosophical world, she became inanimate like minerals and lost her soul.

God refused to live amidst us lest his wrath once released consume us. God disappeared from our presence in an act of contrition and mercy to protect us. Hope then became not reliance on God nor a deliberate ignoring of that which one should fear, but an acceptance and, as the emotion matured, a sense of self-confidence. The latter was not a belief in the best-of-all-possible-worlds nor its twin brother that emerged first from the womb of Rebecca, an illusionary belief.

The opposite of hope is fear, loss of hope and pessimism about the future and then an unjustified resigned paranoia towards any agent we confront. However, as that fear develops further, when caught up in the dichotomy of trust and distrust, directed at oneself, that anxiety and dread become timidity and eventually shyness when directed at oneself. It becomes panic, dismay and even fury when directed at others. It was in the latter stages that Lot’s daughters decide to sleep with their drunken father in order to conceive, to enjoy the happiness of progeny.

If the story of the three messengers, each a carrier of a different dichotomy than happiness and sadness – hope and fear, trust and distrust, anticipation and astonishment – dealt primarily with the polarity of happiness and sadness, if the story of Sodom and Gomorrah dealt with the duality of hope and fear, the story of Abimelech dealt with trust and distrust. However, the narrative went beyond basic trust and reliance on the word of another. Abraham misrepresented the status of Sarah as his sister (she is his half-sister) and not his wife. Abimelech, who absconded with her, was the recipient of a divine message in a dream that revealed the truth. Disgusted at the deceit and the position in which he had been placed, Abimelech confronted Abraham on his deceit driven by fear.

The result of the confrontation was not resentment or even war. Abraham and Abimelech entered into a contractual relationship based both on trust and distrust of the other, trust that the other would fulfill his side of the bargain and distrust that in the future the other might break the terms. The deal was not closed with a handshake, but with an exchange and a legal contract that reinforced the idea that Israelite society would be based, not on a shame culture, but on law, on contracts – even between a man and his wife – and on guilt.

Clearly, the above sketch only offers the flimsiest introduction to the emotions at work that frame the narrative of the binding of Isaac. The above depiction barely touches the story of Isaac’s birth, the tension between anticipation and surprise as action versus passivity become the prime tension (not faith and obedience) in the life of the Israelites.

Aristotle, despite his euphoria over happiness, despite his view that the happy man would be virtuous and that virtue will be the key to that happiness, acknowledges that a life of action is NOT a happy life. Further, action for Aristotle was divorced from the labour of producing one’s clothes and growing one’s food. Action and the productive life belonged to different spheres. Based on such a dichotomy, production could be assigned to serfs and slaves. A man of action was characterized by reason, by thought governing one’s behaviour. In what is possibly Aristotle’s most famous phrase, a human is a rational animal – the more rational and the less like an animal, the more deserving of happiness.

But there is an apparent contradiction as excellence (areté), the ultimate virtue, results from habit not deliberation. It is a product of practice. I will use the sketch above, the tracing of the bare outlines of our emotional expressions, to explicate the story of the birth of Isaac and the narrative concerning the binding of Isaac in the next blog. To understand how sketchy the above analysis is, the chart added hereto as an appendix offers a very abstract outline of the emotions upon which the Torah focuses rather than upon the laws of reason and logic.

The Torah is not a story of rationality, of the reflective and contemplative life, of meditation and in-depth introspection, of the pensive human. That absence in a people that will become known for their mathematical and scientific work has to stand out. Neither Abraham nor Isaac brood as we shall see. They do. They act. There is no alacrity in their behaviour. But I am adumbrating. I am stimulating your anticipation of the next blog. I want you to read it with hunger in your belly, with a voracious appetite – and impatience. I want you to be avid readers filled with fervour.

A Taxonomy of Basic Emotions

 

Happy/Sad                             Transcendent emotions

Happy

Self-directed                           serenity; elation; satisfied; ecstatic

Other-directed                         derision, jest, absurdity and mockery

Sad

Self-directed                           dejection & lonely; gloominess & grief; sorrow; depressed

Other-directed                        grief & loss; nostalgia; betrayed; displaced

 

Hope/Fear                             Present oriented

Hope

Self-directed                           apprehension; worry; acceptance; confidence

Other-directed                        kind; bargaining; illusionary beliefs; Leibnizian optimism

Fear

Self-directed                           pessimism; paranoia; timidity; shyness

Other-directed                        hostility & loathing; terror & panic; dismay; fright & fury

 

Trust/Distrust                        Past oriented

Trust

Self-directed                           aware; grateful; anxious; brave

Other-directed                        attentive; tolerant; assured; admiring

Distrust

Self-directed                           envy; ashamed; stubborn; embarrassed

Other-directed                        dislike; hostile; aversion; revolted; rejection

 

Anticipation/Astonishment Future oriented

Anticipation

Self-directed                           interested; vigilant; apprehensive; uncertain & anxious

Other-directed                        expectant; curious; bored; weary

Astonishment

Self-directed                           upset; stubborn; distracted; rejected

Other-directed                        amazement; astonished; annoyed; dislike and distaste

 

With the help of Alex Zisman