Salvation versus Resurrection

 

ישעיה כו:יט יִחְיוּ מֵתֶיךָ נְבֵלָתִי יְקוּמוּן הָקִיצוּ וְרַנְּנוּ שֹׁכְנֵי עָפָר כִּי טַל אוֹרֹת טַלֶּךָ וָאָרֶץ רְפָאִים תַּפִּיל. Isaiah 26:19 Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust! For Your dew is like the radiant dew; You make the land of the shades come to life.

Resurrection is very infrequently cited in the Torah. In its rare expressions, it is most often interpreted as a vision of glory at the end of days. But try reading it as a nightmare of the end of days when ignorant nostalgia governs, when dead zombies take power, when the shades enter daily life and hide the rays of sun behind a dark cloud, when those who sleep in the dust of the earth on gold-plated beds awake to reproach all others and spread abhorrence and hatred. (Daniel 12:2).

The vision of resurrection is not something to be celebrated, as the rabbis and Jesus did, but to be feared and eschewed. The monster in the black lagoon may now be coloured green as in The Shape of Water and in our imaginations and apparitions, but the real danger lies in the monstrosity of breath entering the dry bones of a dead past, dry bones covered with sinews and flesh, dry bones made to breathe and live again, when those should have been left in the slow decaying heap where they belonged and left to return to dust. (Ezekiel vv:1-2) The goal should be to deliver the Promised Land to our children and our children’s children and not to those lifted out of their graves.

“Dry bones, ’dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord.”

In an age in which a consumer machine with the reach of Amazon, a surveillance machine with the reach of Facebook and a search machine with the power of Google, command the high reaches of our culture, filled in with hordes of more minor players, in an age in which it is so easy to brainwash all in the name of delivering freedom, choice and judgement, in an age when E.M. Forster’s spiritual command to “only connect” has been perverted in the extreme in a connect but totally uncommitted culture, I pray for salvation.

We live in an age of crony capitalism in which real competitive capitalists are exiled as those at the centre of power seek to reduce the independence of the judiciary and laud law and order instead of the rule of law as they create disorder and the rule of whim, in an age in which the political centre can ally with a powerful media network committed to perpetuating and elaborating the same lies instead of holding up truth to power, in an age of political gerrymandering that echoes the corrupt political days of old and power politics is based on a unity of white male elites who cry foul when not permitted to have their cake and eat it too, when simple and arbitrary connects replace commitment and commitment is gutted and converted to sloganeering, when NGOs that are transparent and dedicated are blasted as part of a hidden international conspiracy, when projection onto externals replaces taking responsibility for one’s own actions, when abuse of others replaces critical self-examination of oneself, I pray for salvation.

When those in power wallow in self-pity and victimhood, when the tactics of the powerful weaponize culture to instigate emotionally dominated culture wars, when a nostalgia for the greatness of a nation displaces a historical and critical examination of the past, when anyone committed to the universal oneness of humanity is blasted as a traitor and enemy, when the efforts to improve are turned into a piñata for abuse and calumny, when revenge rather than forgiveness has become the dominating immoral passion, when politicians with a noble conservative heritage turn into impotent patsies of populism, when illiberalism displaces liberalism and when crude nationalism shunts aside true national pride, when the graves for the death of democracies are being excavated, I pray for salvation.

When in the face of feuding sectarianism, shape-shifting allies and local government corruption one turns on one’s heel and retreats, abandoning long-suffering allies, taking with you your military toys, the path is open for corrupt coercion instead of coercion used in the defense of values, I pray for salvation.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – Guilt and Vengeance

DO NOT READ THIS BLOG UNLESS YOU HAVE SEEN THE FILM. The film is brilliant, but even more brilliant than most critics perceived.

How would you feel if you, a mother, had an argument with your teenage daughter, Angela – not exactly an archetypal angel – about whether to let her use your car to go out on a date on a Saturday evening? What if your daughter stormed out of the house saying she would walk and if she got raped it was your fault? What if you, as she fled out the door, called after her in anger that she should get raped for the foul language and insults hurled at you? What if you said this really to get back at her because you had just learned that she was exploring moving out and moving in with her father, Charlie, who used to beat you and whom you divorced when he ran off with a 19-year-old bimbo?

And then she was raped that evening. Not only raped, but murdered. Not only murdered, but raped while she lay dying. Not only murdered and raped, but her corpse burned. As much as you might live in a modern world and knew that, in this case, what happened was not a consequence of your words, the guilt you bore would go so deep and be so mutilating that you wanted, that you needed, to displace any responsibility onto another. What do you do with the ugly and agonizing pain, with the weight of that ton of guilt, with the deep burning embers of a searing grief? What better place to displace that responsibility but onto a club of cracker cops unable to find the murderer and rapist?

This is NOT a film about an enraged, unrelenting, uncompromising woman of steel, determined to ensure justice for the murder and rape of her child. It is not even a film about righteous vengeful fury. There is no righteousness whatsoever. And there certainly is no desire for justice. When Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) insists that she wants the government to set up a database with the DNA of every male so that it can be matched with the DNA on her daughter’s burnt corpse, it is not to obtain and exact justice, but to obtain and exact vengeance.

“Be sure and kill ‘em.” She is a hard-hearted woman so deeply frozen and dead on the inside and so full of fire and brimstone and steely edges on the outside, that we as the audience are sucked into applauding her devil take all attitude if only because the language of both sympathy and bureaucracy is so cold that we welcome, indeed applaud, someone who talks without thinking and fires away with little if no concern for or empathy with her targets. What magic when a writer/director can make such a detestable woman so tremendously likeable that we offer her our deepest sympathies. The chief target of her rage is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a man of affection and sensitive attachment, like his predecesor in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. He is intelligent, sensitive and conscientious rather than an indifferent oaf.

The film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, begins with a distraught but very determined mother bent on displacing that guilt in the ostensible pursuit of justice, with which we as viewers easily identify. Especially since her method of embarrassing the police is so public. She pays for putting up signs on three obsolete titular billboards to express her rage and frustration. The motive is unbeknownst to everyone, except her son who witnessed the altercation between mother and daughter. The billboards are used to displace that deep and very painful guilt. Critics who look at Mildred as “morally unimpeachable” are truly blind and deaf.  She is a harridan, immensely likeable and sympathetic, but still a vicious harridan.

Gradually as the film unfolds, we learn of the source and depth of that guilt. But we learn much more. For Ebbing is a town where the use of foul language is the norm, where the mistreatment of Blacks is the norm, especially by one police officer, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who has never been held responsible for his violent and outrageous behaviour. It just so happens that this violent cop is a mama’s boy, his mother is a virulent bitch and he is probably a repressed homosexual. He gradually wins our sympathy.

It is a town in which a happy family of a couple, a police chief (Willoughby), his wife and two children, play a game by a stream whereby the two young girls are required to fish for stuffed animals around the blanket on which they are sitting without leaving the blanket, while the parents go off for some nookie. But the instructions to the girls are delivered in the foulest language imaginable. As Mildred says at the beginning of the film when discussing the wording with her son on the proposed billboards, you may address your children in the foulest language, but on public billboards you “can’t say nothin’ defamatory.” It is a world of deep hypocrisy.

The sin permeating this town goes much deeper. When a priest, Father Montgomery, comes to the home of the distraught mother to try to persuade her to take down the billboards that are causing such stress to the popular police chief, the mother kicks him out, but not before reducing him to quivering silence by accusing him of complicity for doing nothing, just as he did nothing when his altar boy was seduced or raped by another priest. And in guilt, we sit silent in the theatre oblivious to the fact that this is a tale of raw vengeance and shame rather than of justice and guilt. The male secretive self-protective clubs of the town are now under attack by one enraged woman and her wild jeremiad. And the moral universe is inverted in McDonagh’s view when priests become priests and cops become cops because they want to do good, but are perceived now as sinister simply because of the costumes they wear, whether a clerical collar or a police uniform.

Unequivocally, Ebbing is a town in which sin has raged like a wildfire so that it permeates the language and behaviour of ordinary citizens and officers of the law alike. It is a town where the rule of impulse outweighs the rule of law. It is a town in which any efforts to purify the town had fallen by the wayside and became as obsolete as those billboards did when the new highway was built to bypass the old road. Bad behaviour had become the norm in this town in the heartland of America and sin is everywhere. The town is morally polluted. Not even the torching of the billboards and then the police station, and the scorching of the dumb and distasteful racist Constable Dixon, can even expurgate the sin. Dixon is, of course, the antithesis of Dixon of Dock Green (Jack Warner), the archetypal London bobby of the twenty-year long-running BBC series about a police officer full of common sense and empathy,

But that is just the background, the setting, very important but not the central theme of the movie. The town ceremonies and rituals and rites provide no opportunity any longer to expiate that sin, to cleanse the society of its moral pollution. Moral pollution has become the norm. There is no ritual whereby the town, its leaders and its ordinary citizens can acknowledge their responsibility for the sins. Everyone is complicit. Everyone “stands by.” For the movie is about guilt transmuted into shame, and sin transformed into vengeance.

Guilt goes deeper than sin. It is at the root of sin. It is the failure to take responsibility for one’s actions. At the end of the film, the most vicious police officer becomes a burnt offering and seems to repent (following the guiding note of his now deceased chief of police to learn about guilt, confession and love), owning up to one’s responsibilities and learning to love oneself and others as a good Christian should. It is clear that the members of the town, especially this police officer and his ardent accuser, the mother of the raped girl, go off to possibly murder a suspect who they now know could not have killed the daughter. The town and the people of the town have no rite, no ritual, no religious practice through which they can expiate their guilt and accept responsibility for what they did and what they do. For the fundamental moral code of the town has become displacement of responsibility. The town is awash not only in sin but in guilt. There is no act of reparation available to them. Instead, they get a rifle and ostensibly set out possibly to murder an innocent man. They will decide en route whether they will do it.

There is no redemption. There is no means of redemption. Guns and violence as the answer to problems have so permeated the value structure, have so displaced any real moral code, that the only answer to any action is revenge, not understanding and certainly not any acceptance of responsibility for what has taken place. There is no mechanism to sharpen any individual’s conscience. Paganism has returned to occupy central stage in the heartland of America. It is a Manichean world in which demonic forces seem to continually defeat any divine force. It is a world which has lost most of its humanity where each human, every male and every female, assumes responsibility for him or herself to ensure a divine presence on earth and the expulsion of the demonic.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is about the demonic taking control of a town in the heartland of America just as it has taken over the White House. Any rituals to contain and dispose of moral impurities have largely been sacrificed to cowardice, to ambition and to complicity. We have returned to an age in which a young teenage girl is raped, is murdered, is raped while dying, is offered as a burnt offering, but not to a divine order of a healthy, responsible life, but to a demonic order of guns and irresponsibility, of anarchy rather than the rule of law, of impulse rather than thoughtful consideration. It is a world in which the police station as the central symbol of the rule of law has been burnt to the ground. It is a world in which we who watch cheer this act of revenge and pseudo expiation, thrilled at the violence rather than discomfited by the phenomenal moral deterioration in our human moral code.

God is death. Humans must be wedded to life. The rituals of death, of sin and guilt need a place, a temple, where they can be disposed of. If a rabbi reminds me of the sensuousness, the incense and the smoke, the vibrancy and the flavours of a place of temple sacrifice, then that rabbi is totally out of touch with the function of the temple and the meaning of its absence. For without a temple, all responsibility rests on each and every one of us to be accountable for the commissions of sinful acts that thrust shards of guilt deep into our souls. The destroyed temple does not simply belong to a more primitive past in the sense of appealing to our basic sensuality as if it is simply an outdoor food market.

Why do we need to significantly reduce and limit a gun culture? When do we need blood prohibitions – when the police chief vomits up blood from his cancer, we must recognize the symbolic significance. After all, as McDormand says, “When you croak, the billboards won’t be as effective.” When the sadistic dentist is forced to drill into his own fingernail rather than into the not quite frozen tooth that needs removal, we get a glimpse of a place where inflicting pain has become a way of life and not a place where we try to make pain as painless as possible. So even the police chief’s self-sacrifice to minimize the pain to be inflicted on his family comes across as a positive but largely meaningless gesture, for the core meaning of what this hero did for the town is lost in a miasma of meaningless vengeance totally detached from justice.

Death is now totally intertwined with life instead of hived off and restricted so that life can thrive and blossom. The billboards ask a question intended to embarrass the police. But they are a sign of a society reduced to a shame rather than a guilt culture, a society in which out of helplessness and hopelessness conflicts are resolved by either coercion or shaming rather than by acknowledging guilt and assuming responsibility.

When a movie can put such a profound theological and social commentary before our eyes, and do so with humour and wit, when it so deliberately and cleverly misleads us into a failure to recognize who the hero and who the villain is, when a movie takes us into the bypassed rural routes of the heartland of America to unveil the miasma of sin and the absence of guilt and the rule of law that pervades the town, and when the acting by Frances McDormand , Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are all so brilliant, the writing and direction of Martin McDonagh so nuanced, the movie deserves every reward it received even though it appears that most commentators missed its religious and social profundity.

The land needs to be cleansed, especially the heartland Only then can positive mitzvot and proper ethics once again rule in the land of milk and honey.

Totem and Taboo: A Movie Review

 

Christopher Nolan (2010) Inception

Warren Beatty (2016) Rules Don’t Apply

What do these two films have to do with the series of blogs on the nature of the university? More particularly, what do they have to do with the transformation of the university from a Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method? The overall theme of the essays on the university focuses on power, influence and authority. In my last blog, I used the material from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to explicate his thesis of power, influence and authority when offering a structural analysis of the Book of Exodus.

In his account, Sacks made reference to Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo to insist that in the chiasmic pattern linking the design of the sanctuary with the construction of the sanctuary in Exodus, the story of the Golden Calf was the pivot point. Most importantly, the story of the Golden Calf was not about idolatry, but about the longing for an absent father and, out of this longing, giving one’s allegiance to a tyrant as a substitute. As the reader will see, on this subject, I take a traditionalist stance and argue that the story of the Golden Calf is indeed about idolatry, is about taking a material valuable entity as a substitute for a spiritual entity.

Are the two interpretations mutually exclusive? I will return to answer that question, but I first want to show the link to the two films. I did not choose to watch these films specifically on Saturday night. Inception was just what was on TV when I entered the den. Rules Don’t Apply followed, so I stayed to watch that film as well. As it happens, a dominant plot element in each was about an absent father. A key prop in Inception was explicitly a totem. It is a wonder how serendipity can play a part in the understanding and explication of a position.

In Freud, a totem is a primeval prohibition as well as a protection. In contrast to Inception, a totem for Freud is not self-generated, but is chosen by another or adopted by a whole tribe. The source is characterized as an authentic authority. The totem protects the individual from his or her most powerful longings, but the desire to violate persists in the subconscious. Thus, the totem is both a prohibition against surrendering to temptation and committing a transgression, and a protector that provides boundary conditions.

In both films, at the centre of the plot is a key character who suffers considerably from his relationship with his father. In Inception, he is the son of a very rich man who recently died; the young man is in the process of inheriting the old man’s extensive corporate holdings. This is a psychological heist movie in which a usual heist team, each member with complementary skills, gets together, this time not to rob a physical safe, but a psychological one. The team plans to invade the subconscious of the young heir and influence him to believe that, on his own, he must dismantle his father’s holdings. That will serve the interests of a rival tycoon who hired the heist team because they have developed the techniques for getting inside the safe of memories of an individual in order to manipulate those memories and, thereby, control his mind.

In Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty plays Howard Hughes who is obsessed, not with rosebud (Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, 1941), but with his father, with ensuring the Hughes name is preserved on his father’s company which he inherited, just as bankers and shareholders of TCA close in on him as an eccentric incapable of managing a huge company. A subsequent psychological post-mortem argued that he was not so much driven to his madness by that obsession, but that his anxiety and retreat into isolation were yhe result of a very over-protective mother obsessed with the cleanliness of her child and protecting him from polio. The father is gone. Inception picks up the same theme. Powerful fathers who are absent from the films nevertheless play dominating roles.

Neither plot worked to support Jonathan Sack’s thesis about choosing tyrants to rule over you as a substitute for the longed-for father. In Inception, the son remains under the thumb of his father. The whole effort to “capture his mind” was to plant an idea that will hopefully dominate his conscious life that he needs to free himself from his father at the same time as he remains true to his father. This is to be accomplished by implanting the idea that the father was not disappointed in his son for failing to emerge as a strong leader in the mold of his father, but for failing to emerge as an independent thinker and doer who would not be under the thumb of anyone. With such a new mindset, instead of clinging to the assets he inherited as a way to cling to his father who showed him no affection as a child, he would dissolve the corporate assets to free himself and become an independent man.

Cutting across this theme is another father-child story, that of the role of the leader of the heist team, Cobb, who has mastered the art of penetrating a third level of depth to the unconscious. However, Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the absent father. He has been cut off from contact with his children as part of his mind remains stuck in the underworld of the unconscious attached and obsessed with his wife and mother of his children whom he used as an experiment to explore the very great depth of the subconscious, but in the experiment was unable to return to earth. Guilt submerges him. The only route back to his children is by going back, both to regain access to the United States, the government of which suspects that he killed his wife, and his children.

According to that narrative, guilt can operate in multiple dimensions and in different directions just as time and experience can. The key always to preserving one’s sanity is by possession of a totem, in this case, a dreidl, a spinning top, that can be grasped and used to prevent being sucked totally into the vortex of the subconscious and to test whether you are in the real world or a world of dreams. In “primitive” societies, a totem defines the perimeter of the tribe and identification with it ensures the protection of the member. In Nolan’s film, the threat is not simply another tribe, but an extinguishing of any spatial and temporal reference points altogether. The totem becomes the the protective marker of a boundary which guards the spirit of the tribe, this time, of the whole human species.

In Beatty’s film, the totem is not explicit, but it is Howard Hughes who serves as the substitute father figure for both Maria Mabrey, a devour Baptist aspiring starlet played by Lily Collins, and her unconsummated knight, Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich, another repressed Protestant type. Both are in thrall to Harold Hughes. He dictates that there is to be no sexual involvement of his employees. Both are tied to Hughes as the god who will deliver them into stardom or magnificent wealth as an entrepreneur. They reveal themselves to be both consecrated by Hughes but also dangerously passionate about one another. Hughes in the end is right. He does not simply have an obsession with cleanliness and a fear of being defiled. Pollution lurks everywhere.

Both films are about power and the use of wealth, of material influence, to affect the behaviour of others. Power as creative energy, as enterprise and innovation, is expressed through the heist team and particularly the DiCaprio character, who in scene after scene must fight off the apparitions of Cobb’s subconscious who are determined to kill the members of the heist team. Coercive power is used as a defence, but the core tool of the offence is influence, to gain control over the mind, not through drugs, but by entering the subconscious of the other. This is not influence via information, analysis and education. But neither is it simply about tyrannical coercive power, though that is a necessary ingredient in the mix.

The Golden Calf as both a real phenomenon and an idol that dominates the imagination and character identity to promise freedom to and deliver someone from bondage and slavery to a subconscious tyrant, in this case, a father, who controls behaviour even from the grave and reduces the heir to a puppet rather than an independent autonomous being. Warren Beatty’s Citizen Kane as Howard Hughes never achieves that freedom, even though his life appeared to be that of a star lighting up the heavens as it crossed the sky and burnt itself up in the quest for free expression.

The casting couch is not portrayed in Rules Don’t Apply as a fly trap but as a prison of the woman’s own imagination – in this case, a star-struck deeply Christian young lady – driven subconsciously by her own desires to be a star in the firmament.  And for her forlorn lover and satrap of Howard Hughes, it is much more clearly a dream of becoming the author of his own initiatives in wealth accumulation. Tyranny in the case of both films is more a problem of self-identity than one of external coercion, but the desire, the longing, is not narrowly cast as a pursuit simply for a substitute father. The problem in Inception is about cognitive dissonance, is about what is real and what is a product of one’s own imagination, is about what others should be held accountable for and what is your own responsibility. As in Exodus, freedom is only attained when you actually break free and construct your own sanctuary.

In both films, God is a visible absence. There is no source of divine authority, no source of authentic being, except, and in both films, the love of a parent for a child. That is the ultimate source of authenticity. This is the repeated pattern of the tale told in Genesis about the family rather than the making of nation in Exodus. The error in Inception is that DiCaprio left his children behind, not to climb to the peak of a mountain, but to get to the valley of the third level of the subconscious on the ocean floor. The route to freedom in this film is about self-making and freeing oneself from irrational ties – father, mother, wife – in order to bond with a child. It is a Rousseau fantasy. The issue is not so much freeing oneself from a father-figure who protects, guides and supports, as becoming a father figure who protects, guides and supports.

Becoming a settled nation with boundaries, with recognized authorities and rules, requires leaving behind the nomadic life, whether that roaming takes place in the heavens above, as in the case of Howard Hughes as a pilot, or in the subconsciousness of other lives. And that means accepting responsibility for accumulating wealth without succumbing to the worship of it. In the pastoral world, yearning and desire offer fatal attractions that lead to war and violence. The object is to construct an alternative settled world in which roaming will take place in the imagination and in intellectual inquiry rather than in a quest for riches.

The job of the university is to help facilitate that process. So why must it change all the time, change the idea behind it so that the idea itself creeps in to control the mind and prevent precisely what its purpose was intended to fulfil? Why must humans return to converting a rich and flowering institution into the fatal attraction of the nomad for the consolation of a desert? What lies behind the compulsion for self-destruction and all in the name of re-creation and renewal? How and why do the horizon-struck dreamers, whether in the arts or Hollywood, whether into the unconscious or nature, end up turning the rich life of a jungle into an arid place for both the mind and body?  Where and how does the parting of the waters lead to the construction of a Golden Calf, a treasured inert object without an ounce of spiritual creativity?

In the Torah, how do the Israelites overcome the heroic world of pastoral nomads to seek an oasis in a city of stone like Jerusalem (or Amman)? How did the Israelites, transformed by forty years of desert life from slaves into alert warriors with the endurance of camels, with wells of courage, loyalty, and openness both to strangers and to new ideas at the same time, become a nation that builds walls of stone within which they find a sanctuary? What role did the portable sanctuary of the desert play in that transition?

That is the key question. The university reinvents itself as a sanctuary, transforms itself from one type of sanctuary into another, only to eventually destroy its own walls. Why? And how? Why was it necessary for the university to leave faith behind so that both faculty and students are left bereft, feel it, but largely do not recognize what they feel? Is civilization necessarily intertwined with discontent and can salvation only come from an escape from hidebound institutions and well-defined roles to return to the clean air of the desert with waters lapping on an unseen shore?

Certainly, many of the prophets believed that corruption came with civilization and all effort must be made to engage in intellectual and imaginative nomadism where rules do not apply and the power of fire guides one towards the promised land which, when reached, has already revealed itself as a betrayal of its vision of clean air and an austere landscape guided on its path by a pillar of fire to an austere desert. Has the university waxed fat and gone a whoring as Hosea declared?

Settlers are governed by rules and laws as are universities that prepare people to live in a civilized culture. But the latest rebellion is all around. The people want to worship at the feet of a Golden Calf, even those strongly rooted in a religious tradition and, perhaps even more so, for they want to return to a world of faith rather than one grounded in scepticism, forgetting that the desert world is a place of discord and feuds rather than an imaginary place of magnificent calm at one with the peace of God.

 

To be continued: From the Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method

Power, Influence and Authority in the Torah

 

I have been writing a series of papers on the contemporary university which I will continue now that I am back in Toronto. I went to Torah study upon my return yesterday morning. We were at the end of the Book of Exodus reading Ki Tissa. Rabbi Splansky wanted to place the discussion within a larger compass and pull back rather than focus on any minute detail After reading two short excerpts about Shabbat, we turned to reading the final chapter from Jonathan Sacks’ 2010 book Covenant & Conversation – Exodus: The Book of Redemption called “Exodus: The Narrative Structure” (329-337) Sacks is the brilliant ex-Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth and a prolific author. The book itself justly won a National Book Award.

He claims, with much justification, that Exodus is the transitional volume in transforming a family into a nation. Though he focuses on the theme of moral courage in a time of crisis, on the emphasis on “the power of individuals, driven by justice or compassion, to defy tyrants and change the course of history,” I want to cut across his discussion of politics and morality to unpack his conceptions of power, influence and authority embedded in his thesis.

Before I do, I begin with where Rabbi Splansky began, with a reading of 31: 13-15


יג  וְאַתָּה דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר, אַךְ אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי, תִּשְׁמֹרוּ:  כִּי אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם–לָדַעַת, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.
13 ‘Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying: Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you.

יד  וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא, לָכֶם; מְחַלְלֶיהָ, מוֹת יוּמָת–כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ.
14 Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; everyone that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
טו  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, יֵעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן קֹדֶשׁ, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, מוֹת יוּמָת. 15 Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

and 35:1-3

א  וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה, לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם. 1 And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.
ב  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת. 2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death.
ג  לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת.  {פ} 3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.’ {P}

Does this identification of fire with work have anything to do with God first appearing to Moses as a burning bush (Rubus sanctus) on Mount Horeb in which the flames burned brightly, but the bush itself did not burn? All of Sinai is summed up as seneh, Hebrew for that particular bush.

In the first extract, one is commanded to keep Shabbat as a sign between God and the Israelites throughout the generations in order to recognize one’s nation as a consecrated or sanctified nation. And, of course, you cannot work or you will be put to death. In the second extract, nothing is said about consecration of the nation but the work which is forbidden is depicted as that which is connected with kindling fire. I will return to these extracts in tomorrow’s blog after explicating Sacks on power, influence and authority.

Sacks first introduces the theme of power when he argues that the major theme of Exodus is a narrative moving from slavery to freedom as a result of God’s intervention in history to challenge any tyrant who seeks “to dominate others by the use of power,” (my italics, what I have previously called coercive power) and a matching theme running in the opposite direction of transferring power to the people in the form of humans assuming responsibility for their own destinies. In this theme, God is an educator working through influence rather than countervailing power in order to displace coercive power with creative power. In this counter current, the text is “less about divine power than about divine empowerment.” Note that the transfer works through influence, through education.

Within this intellectual frame, that thus far has not included any reference to authority, Sacks then moves to unpack the structure of the text according to a chiastic or mirror image. The dominant chiastic pattern is a b c b a OR abcdedcba in which there is a pivot in the centre. Rabbi Splansky dismissed the ABBA structure as not chiastic, but it is, just a different version without a pivot. Different chiastic structures can be located in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well as in the Torah. Thus, the story of the flood narrative has a pivot between two wings each with 10 elements:

A: Noah and his sons (Gen 6:10)

B: All life on earth (6:13:a)

C: Curse on earth (6:13:b)

D: Flood announced (6:7)

E: Ark (6:14-16)

F: All living creatures (6:17–20)

G: Food (6:21)

H: Animals in man’s hands (7:2–3)

I: Entering the Ark (7:13–16)

J: Waters increase (7:17–20)

PIVOT: X: God remembers Noah (8:1)

J: Waters decrease (8:13–14)

I’: Exiting the Ark (8:15–19)

H’: Animals (9:2,3)

G’: Food (9:3,4)

F’: All living creatures (9:10a)

E’: Ark (9:10b)

D’: No flood in future (9:11)

C’: Blessing on earth (9:12–17)

B’: All life on earth (9:16)

A: Noah and his sons (9:18,19a)

Exodus, according to Sacks, has two overarching arches reflecting one another:

Unjust society (1-6)

Liberation (ten plagues) (7-13)

Division of the Reed Sea (14-18)

Liberty: ten commandments (19-20)

Just society (21-24)

In the tale, Israel was instructed to become an anti-Egypt “predicated not on power but on respect for human freedom and dignity.” (331) Yet Sacks also insists that the “most powerful force tending in this direction [the move from slavery to freedom] was the Sabbath.” (331) The Israelites moved from a hierarchical society of pyramids and the focus on a central ruler to a flat desert “in which nothing intervened between man and God.” (331)

Why is the parting of the Reed Sea the pivot point in this first arch, the link between Moses when he stands alone with God and confronts burning bush and the second in which God appears “like a devouring flame”? One individual, Moses, with God working through him, changes history by means of “the inner dialogue between a single soul and the God of freedom and dignity.” (332) This is a tease rather than a fulfilling answer, but I will expand and explicate it further in tomorrow’s blog.

Sacks then puts forth a second arch, a second chiastic pattern, “less about politics than about spirituality, and the place of God in society. Its symbol is the sanctuary. The chiastic pattern follows:

Tabernacle: instruction (25-31:11)

Sabbath (31:12-18)

Golden calf (32-34)

Sabbath (35:1-3)

Tabernacle: construction (35:4-40)

The pivot point is not the division of the Reed Sea, but the making and worship of a Golden Calf. It is here that Sacks diverts into some questionable Freudian interpretation, that the Golden Calf represents not so much idolatry, but the fear of absence, for when the father is absent, the child feels a mixture of guilt and fear and needs to construct a substitute father as the core mechanism to explain the origins of religion. The Freudian references are Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an illusion (1927) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). The Golden Calf is “a substitute for an invisible God and the missing leader and father figure.” (333) Of course, for Sacks, the theory is not a stage in the historical evolution of beliefs, but the eternal recurrence of a repeated pattern thus justifying the continuing role of religion.

In this exposition, Sacks ignores all the anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber and Claude Lévi-Strauss who have heaped scorn on Freud’s theory for ignoring culturally-determined influences in favour of macroscopic universal frames weak in evidence as well as subsequent developments in psychoanalytic theory which rejected the application of individual psychological dramas and tensions to superimpose them on history. Géza Róheim, a psychoanalyst and anthropologist, did not, at least initially. However, Róheim eventually accepted Freud’s theory of totem and taboo as discredited, but continued to respect Freud’s theory as a classic.

Finally, quite aside from whether Freud’s idea is about a fear of absence, quite aside from the legitimacy of Freud’s idea, whatever it is, there are so many other differences between what Sacks is explicating and Freud, that the interposition of Freud comes off as ludicrous. To give just a few examples:

Totem and Taboo

Sacks Freud
Transition from family into a nation Treating a tribe as if it were a family
Power of individuals to defy tyranny Individual impotence to defy authority
Totem = a time – Shabbat Totem = an animal spirit in space
Why – God consecrates Source of consecration unknown
How – banning work (use of fire) How – banning contact (incest)

There are other differences, but I want to move on to the core exposition of Sacks’ views on power, authority and influence. I will eventually circle back to totem and taboo, especially when linking Sacks’ theories to the psychological and social structures embedded in two movies that I saw last evening, Warren Beatty’s 2016 romantic ‘comedy’ Rules Don’t Apply about Howard Hughes, and Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie Inception, a heist sci-fi movie focused on stealing and shifting an individual’s unconscious. In the meanwhile, I will bracket Sacks’ simplistic assertion that Freud is about the longing for and resentment of father figures that explains our political craving for strong leaders. For Sacks, the pivot point is the Golden Calf, not because it is an idol, but because it signifies the disintegration of a nation unready for freedom because of its obsession for a strong leader.

For Sacks, the Sanctuary serves two purposes. It is a visible symbol of the presence of God in the midst of a people to assure them that God was among them and they need not fear His absence. Secondly, in actually constructing the Sanctuary, what we do supplants what is done for us. The whole community builds the Sanctuary. Allowing the Israelites to express themselves as “free and creative human beings,” what I had heretofore referred to as creative rather than coercive power, provides an apprenticeship in liberty. The fire of God was now with the people daily. Further, the building of the Sanctuary marked a turning point from a reliance on prophets for a specific time and place to a reliance on Priests, on individuals solely with authentic authority to those who also had positions of formal authority and, therefore, could offer institutional continuity.

The central thesis: society in general, and Jews in particular, need the presence of God in their midst to avoid repression and corruption. God is the sovereign authority, the ultimate authentic authority for a nation living under God to circumscribe all human power, to ensure that might is subordinate to right. If one forgets to worship God, one opens oneself to tyranny. This second interposition – the first was the reference to Freud’s totem and taboo – is Sacks’ political theory on the roots of tyranny and the method of offering insurance against it.

Sacks went on to paint another chiasma, the use of that pattern to place the social and political within a cosmological context by comparing the pattern in Genesis with that of Exodus. But I will skip the effort at cosmology to sum up Sacks’ theories of power, influence and authority while bracketing the Freudian theory, bracketing the explanation of the roots of tyranny and the mode of insurance against it, and his cosmological exercise.

Power
coercive versus creative, and the energy and labour of the people must be used to consecrate freedom, to embed freedom to create and ensure freedom from the rule of tyrants
Influence
Non this issue, Sacks is weak because he only focuses on intellectual inFfluence, on the transfer of thoughts and ideas to a whole community and ignores the role of material influence which is really symbolized by the Golden Calf rather than a substitute for a missing father. (I will expand on this theme when I analyze the two films I saw last evening.)
Authority
both authentic (God or God’s voice through prophets) and formal through boundary conditions – the main one, not working on Shabbat, not playing with fire on Shabbat – and exercised through the formal religious structure of priests and a formal political structure of kings and/or parliaments or presidents.

After the expansion of these themes through reference to the two films and critiquing both Sacks’ interpretation and interposition of Freud’s theory of totem and taboo as well as his thesis on the origins of tyranny, I will return to the exposition of the development of universities as the central institutions responsible for cultivating influence rather than authority in a society.

To be continued.

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.

The Alt-Right in the Torah

A Prolegomena

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

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

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

The Alt-Right in the Torah

by

Howard Adelman

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

Core Beliefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

 

On Arrogance and Modesty: Shemot Exodus 1:1-6:1

On Arrogance and Modesty: Shemot Exodus 1:1-6:1

by

Howard Adelman

Moses is not introduced until Chapter 2 of Exodus. Instead, this book begins as a tale of the Israelite people and the Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph.” (1:8) But we know who Joseph was. We just read a very long story about his life and achievements. And now we are introduced to a repressive Pharaoh. How is this Pharaoh (PII) depicted? How does his character, his dispositions, his motivations, his self-conception and his overall temperament compare to that of Joseph? Of Moses?

Pharaoh (PII) has none of the grace, the tolerance, the consideration and the humanitarianism of the Pharaoh who knew Joseph (PI), the Pharaoh who appointed Joseph as the vizier of Egypt. PII was a populist. He talked directly, just as Moses will, but Moses talked to God; PII talked to his people (1:9). He may have been an all-powerful leader, but PII championed the ordinary Egyptian against previous Pharaohs who, PII seemed to believe, succoured and welcomed strangers. PII presented himself as opposing the establishment, the previous powerful elite who coddled strangers in their midst. Against the interest in protecting and holding onto their labouring population, PII raged against the Israelites.

PII used the Israelites as a scapegoat. They were Other. They were totally other. They were inferior. But they were also numerous and, therefore, a potential fifth column – “in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise up from the ground.” (1:10) Do not welcome the stranger. Fear them. They are a danger. In the process, PII transformed Egypt from the benevolent rule of an autocrat (PI) to a state run as a one-person fiefdom. L’état c’est moi. PII began the process of dismantling the institutions that allowed Egypt to rule the ancient world. Instead of welcoming strangers among them, PII oppressed them. He rounded up those “strangers” and shackled them in forced labour. As he did so, the fear of the alleged dangers of the Israelites grew rather than diminished. The Egyptians were ruthless, without an ounce of empathy, and made life as bitter as possible for what had become a slave nation.

If PI had been constrained by economic realities, PII was not. The latter was willing to kill the source of his manual labour force, Hebrew boys, to service his paranoia and to use the fear of strangers as a way of mobilizing the Egyptians behind his autocratic rule. Was he effective? Not among the midwives who did not carry out his harsh decree and, instead, blamed the Hebrew women for being so healthy that they did not need a midwife. He may have been a populist, but could not use his tongue to persuade, just dictate.

He would be succeeded by another autocrat even worse than PII. PIII never acted with any strategic considerations in mind. His treatment of the Israelites was not a product of thoughtful and sound public policy, but rather of rants and stubborn determination to get his way. PII may have used the persecution of the Israelites to mobilize the Egyptian population behind him, but PIII disdained diplomacy altogether in favour of being a brawler, not just with anyone, but with the God of Israel. Contrast the behaviour of PII and PIII with the respect PI showed God.

It seems clear that PII was a macho male who lived off dominating the lives of others. He wanted and needed recognition. PIII would need even greater recognition, not as primus inter pares, first among equals, but as first űber alles. PIII would accept no rivals under any circumstances, and certainly would not accede to a God who was superior to himself in virtually every way. But his conflict with God would bring out his anxiety, his self-doubt, his emotional instability, his negative emotions and his propensity towards depression – when he was not being manic.

PII and PIII both lack any sense of curiosity (compare them in this regard to PI), imaginative capability, concern with or care for others. There did not seem to be an ounce of empathy or compassion in either. And PIII, though stubborn and determined to have his way, possessed no ability to think strategically in a disciplined manner, or to follow and submit to a set of rules, or even formulate such rules. Revenge was the driving force behind his behaviour rather than accommodation. As we will see, he seemed incapable of learning from experience.

Cognitively rigid and incurious, lacking any sense of emotional stability and calm, PII (and, subsequently, PIII), quite aside from being the oppressor of the Israelites, comes across as a most disagreeable fellow. PII was certainly driven and determined; PIII was even worse; he was, again as we shall see, restless and incapable of keeping a deal. He seemed to be a dynamo in perpetual motion, especially when contrasted with Moses. PII, the Pharaoh in the narrative before us, was the archetype of callous rudeness and arrogance. It would not be inaccurate to dub him a narcissistic mendacious two-dimensional performer rather than a three-dimensional human being. The only emotion both PII and PIII seemed capable of expressing was rage.

What a contrast with Joseph. But Joseph was far from a saint and just as far from being a Tzaddik, contrary to his publicists. He was as disagreeable as PII, but for different reasons. Joseph was a consummate actor with an instinct for making an impression on others. But Joseph was also a malicious gossip. If PII saw himself as greater than anyone, Joseph was very capable of his own aggrandized self-expression, though certainly more warranted. PII did not have to get along to get ahead. Joseph acquired the skill of the former to accomplish the latter. He acquired the skills of a diviner, but took no responsibility for his actions. Unlike Moses, who invited God to intervene in history, in Joseph’s world, God determined everything, eliminating the need for confession, forgiveness and, hence, acceptance of responsibility.

Look at the end of Genesis when his brothers begged for forgiveness. Instead of offering that forgiveness and permitting his brothers to accept and take responsibility for their actions, he cried. Unlike PII, Joseph was all sentiment, but lacked compassion, not to suggest that his brothers exhibited much. Joseph told his brothers: “Do not fear, for I am in the place of God.  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:19-20) PII might have claimed that he was a god, but Joseph did the next worse thing. He said that he was in the place of God. Though God never spoke to him as he would to Moses. Joseph did not invite God’s entry into history, but insisted that what took place, even evil deeds, were just expressions of God’s will. For very different reasons, PII and Joseph both exhibited “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.” What a contrast with Jacob! Both PII and Joseph, though radically different, could not accept that they had ever done anything wrong.

Both PII and Joseph presented themselves as gifts from heaven. But true Israelites “rose from the ground.” Moses was an exception. He came forth from the water.  The meaning of the name Moses in Egyptian meant “drawn out,” a name given by Bithiah, his adoptive mother, who pulled Moses out from the river. Bithiah’s name itself means “Daughter of Yah,” daughter of God. She became Moses’ second midwife. Joseph, in contrast, was named Zaphenath-paneah. The speculation about the meaning of that name that seems both the most scholarly as well as appealing to me is “he who is called life.” As much as Moses is a spiritual man serving as a conduit between God and man, Joseph is the epitome of a natural human driven by a quest for power and position as the expression of what it means to live at the highest level.

If Joseph was arrogant, Moses is the epitome of a great man who remains humble despite his royal upbringing. He first became a shepherd of sheep and then of humans as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela did in the twentieth century. But the latter two divined the future as Joseph did. God spoke to Moses face-to-face and Moses was the vehicle by which God revealed Himself to humans. Joseph said to his brothers that he would personally be responsible for their safety and well-being. Moses never attributed any credits to himself. His unique characteristics were not special. Perhaps many others could have done as well or better than he did.

Moses was not a goody-goody two-shoes. What is the first story told of Moses after the tale of his birth and his being drawn out of the water? It is the encounter with a taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Moses rose up in anger and slew the man. He did not own up to the deed but sought to hide it by burying the man’s body. The next day when he witnessed two Hebrew slaves fighting one another, and intervened, they challenged Moses. “Who are you to talk peace and to dissuade us from fighting? You killed an Egyptian taskmaster yesterday. Are you threatening me now?” There was a witness. Pharaoh wanted revenge, even against a boy in his own household. Moses was afraid and fled.

Not much of an advertisement for a future military, political and religious leader of the Israelites. He fled to Midian. He went to a well, the J-Date for ancient Hebrews. Once more he intervened. But he did not kill. He simply chased away other shepherds harassing the priest of Midian’s seven daughters. And he watered their flocks. The Midian priest was impressed, invited Moses to dinner and then gave his daughter, Zipporah, in marriage. Zipporah had a child, Gershon. We move through Moses’ early life with the speed of lightning. Yet there is sufficient to capture his core character – caring, responsible, capable of taking a moral stance, but also possessing a volcanic temper.

Then the revelation. Not a dream needing interpretation, but the appearance of an angel of the Lord in a blazing bush, a bush that is not consumed by the fire. Moses will not be consumed with the anger within him as Pharaoh (PIII) will be. God is fire. Moses emerged from the water. Fire and water do not mix. Yet God called to him. And Moses, like Abraham answered, “Hinaini.” Here I am. Moses did not turn away. And God spoke directly to Moses, introducing Himself but not revealing his name. He called on Moses to lead his people out of bondage.

Moses replied. Who am I to carry forth so great a mission? How can I convince anyone? Moses had to be drawn out of himself. He had to develop and be transformed into a leader. How could he convince people? He was full of doubt, totally lacking in the certainty of either PII, PIII or Joseph. By signs and wonders, God replied. And he gave Moses a demonstration turning a rod into a snake and a snake back into a rod, covering the back of Moses’ hand with fish scales and then making his skin smooth again.

These are not arbitrary magical acts. And they are not just dreams either. The snake in the Garden of Eden is crafty and clever, shrewd and wily. Machiavellianism will be required.

We need a break; it is time for a joke. A Bishop of the church each day passed a Jewish beggar near the entry of the church. Next to him the Bishop saw a Christian beggar wearing a monk’s habit with a large cross around his neck. Each day the Bishop would drop a few coins into the box of the Christian beggar. After many days of passing the two, he stopped. He addressed the Jewish beggar. Why are you begging as a Jew in front of a Cathedral? Why don’t you go outside a synagogue among your own people? The Jewish beggar turned to the other beggar and said, “So Moishe, look who is trying to teach us how to raise money for charity?” Machiavellian indeed!

In the Garden of Eden story, the stiff staff, the rigid snake, can no longer stand up, but falls to the ground. In this tale, the sequence is reversed. The rod becomes a squirming snake and then reverts once again to a staff.

Moses was a merman who emerged from the water and grew up with delicate skin in the royal household. As one of my readers noted, Moses was like Elisa in The Shape of Water, an outsider in the Hebrew, Egyptian and Midian communities. If Elisa was mute, Moses too had a speech impediment.  Moses had “never been a man of words.” (Exodus 4:10) But God will instruct Moses what to say and do. Joseph, in contrast, was the one giving the credit. In Exodus, God takes the credit and Moses simply has to trust God that He will perform as needed. Aaron will speak for you to the people. This will guarantee that Moses can never become a populist. For he will not be able to address his people directly or claim they are his people.

Could one have a greater contrast with PII and PIII, but also with Joseph? Moses remains the epitome of a modest leader.