Reflections on the Order of Canada

On 31 December 2016 I received the Order of Canada. Last Thursday I was finally able to attend the ceremony in which I was inducted into that order. The day before, a dark cloud seemed to hover over me. Though I was not depressed, I had become anxious. My shoulders slouched and I felt myself growing inward and cutting off from my family members who had accompanied me to Ottawa. Anxious is not the exact word. It was more like dread. I had become apprehensive and began to question why I had ever agreed to accept the award. Should I have followed the precedent of Morley Callaghan, Mordecai Richler and Claude Ryan and refused the award? What was the source of this reluctance?

I have never felt nervous or anxious about giving lectures or talks no matter the numbers or the status of the people I was addressing. And in this context, I was not even required to say a word – just walk down the aisle in the order in which we had been placed, take my reserved seat, then just walk up to the front of the room when my name was announced and, as I learned, bowing slightly to Julie Payette, the Governor General (she is the Chancellor and Commander of the Order), and then taking a position between an honour guard in uniform and the GG facing the audience. After my citation was read, I was to step forward, face the GG, and the insignia of the Order would be attached by the GG to the lapel of my jacket. I would have my picture taken with the GG and then walk over to sign the roll book and return to my seat. Nothing untoward or onerous.

As I feared from past experiences when participating in ceremonies, I was very uncomfortable. I was also emotionally overcome once, stumbled twice and perhaps was inappropriate in a fourth move. And that is not counting that, when my picture was taken with the GG, my tie was totally askew.

First, when I walked down the aisle and saw my son and three grandchildren sitting next to the aisle, my tears welled up and I could barely suppress crying. And I had forgotten to take a Kleenex to wipe away the excess liquids leaking out of the orifices on my face. Next, I began to get up to walk up to the front before my name was called. Then, after the insignia was pinned to my lapel and I had my picture taken, and after I signed the book, I got up to return to my seat. My minder touched my shoulder and gently but firmly pressed me back to my chair. I got it. It would be disturbing to the next presentation if I moved back to my seat before the next person received his insignia. My fourth faux pas I suspected, but later came to doubt whether it was indeed a faux pas, is that when my picture was being taken with the GG, I put my arm around her. Should you put your arm around a queen or her representative?

I now think that this was OK. Julie was so personable, so affable, so down to earth, even though she had been a former astronaut and was now GG. At dinner that evening, she came over to our table carrying her own wooden fold up chair and sat down beside my wife to chat with us for awhile. If ever there was a ceremony that could be both precise, exacting and formal but not in the least pompous, this must have been an exemplar. The attention to detail was masterly. I even learned a trick. Leave a row of seats empty so that when people returned to their seats in the row in front of where they had been sitting, they would not clumsily have to get by bodies and legs.

The ceremony itself was not ostentatious. It was not like Putin’s fourth inauguration on Monday last week which looked like a coronation. There was formality but no real fanfare, solemnity without splendour, a small degree of pageantry but without any pretence. It was a ritual but one devoid of grandiosity even though the setting in Rideau Hall was stunning. The ceremony was modest and simple with a very relaxed supportive staff.  Though infused with decorum and courtesy, the affair was neither dull nor insignificant. It could not be when one heard the accomplishments read of those who received the award. One felt extremely proud to be a Canadian.

I have always dreaded ceremony. I never attended any of my graduations. In synagogue I fear being asked to receive an aliyah and desperately try to find an excuse since it is such an honour. Once when I accepted, I not only missed a part, but when I returned to my seat, I sat in the wrong row. I become discombobulated during ceremonies. Perhaps participating in the receipt of the Order of Canada may have cured me. It was, in the end, such a pleasurable experience in spite of my stumbles. But perhaps I am as incurable in this failing as in many others.

I did actually learn what the honour was, though I probably err in some respects. (Please correct me.) Orders are societies of merit which recognize outstanding achievement and exceptional service over a long period of time. It used to be recognition for a lifetime of achievement, but now you no longer have to wait until you are, on average, in your seventies to receive such an award. The insignia is the outward symbol of the honour conferred.

Order of Canada

Order of Order.of.Canada.insignia

 

As can be seen, there is a striped white and red ribbon with the colours of our national flag. The badge and the stylized maple leaf are silver (gilt with a gold maple leaf for Officers of the order and gilt with red enamel for Companions of the Order, the two higher honours). St. Edward’s Crown tops the badge reminding us that we belong to a monarchy. St Edward’s Crown is the centrepiece of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom used since 1911 to crown English and British monarchs at their coronations, reviving a practice dating back to the thirteenth century. A stylized image of this crown is used on insignia throughout the Commonwealth to symbolize the royal authority of the Queen. It is often the reason separatists or republicans refuse to accept the Order of Canada.

The central badge is surrounded by a white enamel hexagonal snowflake, also stylized like the maple leaf, with six equal leaves. The snowflake was chosen as the symbol, not simply because Canada is cold, but because no two snowflakes are the same.

The originals, not the one pinned on my lapel, are also bedecked with precious stones. I had been told that one is expected to wear the miniature of the insignia at all times, but I cannot imagine putting it on my sweats that I usually wear when writing or my casual shirts and slacks when I go out. I have fixed one to my lapel of a dress sports jacket and another to a suit so that I will wear it on formal occasions like a wedding. I do not know why I have such a fear of appearing ostentatious. Perhaps it is because I am afraid that someone will reveal that I do not deserve such an honour. However, I was truly relieved when I read in the booklet that they provided, “Guide for the Wearing of Orders, Decorations and Medals,” that, “Miniatures are worn only for formal evening events,” such as a state dinner or diplomatic reception (p. 8)

Why was I told one thing but read another? The answer resided in my confusion. I had thought the “miniature” was the lapel pin. In fact, there are three, not two versions. The largest is the replica of the original chest insignia. Miniatures are smaller replicas of insignia worn on a smaller ribbon for evening functions in place of the full-sized chest insignia; that was the one pinned on my lapel. Lapel pins are tiny button-sized replicas without the ribbon. I learned that, indeed, you were expected to wear lapel pins daily with civilian dress on the left lapel of a jacket or in a similar position on any other clothing. If they catch me not wearing it, will they ask for it back?

The motto, Desiderantes meliorem patriam, surrounds the stylized maple leaf. This puzzled me. In English it is translated as “they desire a better country.” Not a desire to make Canada great again, but a desire to make it better. The problem is not the motto, but the source. I recognize that this reference is simply to people who make their country a better place. The problem for me is that the quotation is taken from Hebrews 11:16, a very Christian text. My concern is not because the source is Christian. After all, Hebrews comes from a gospel of Israelites who simply accepted Jesus as their lord. The full verse in the King James version reads: “But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.”

The better country is no longer Zion, but the heavenly country where one presumably goes after one dies. On earth, we are just sojourning. Earth is not our true home. But the whole ceremony, and those who received the awards, indicated the opposite. The accomplishments were a celebration of what had been done to make this earth and our country a better place. In my understanding, Hebrews 11:16 refers to a heavenly-country that people desire rather than an earthly imperfect one that they can improve. Hebrews 11:14 states unequivocally: “For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.” Instead, the Order of Canada highlights the tremendous country in which we find ourselves and not that we are on earth simply waiting for an enduring and perfect home after we die. Perhaps my kvetching just demonstrates my picayune scholarly credentials!

There is some evidence that although the award adopts a motto from Hebrews, which has the opposite meaning of the original, there is one dramatic similarity. Though we are given the insignia to wear, it is not ours. We are merely trustees that wear it. If we do not live up to its standards, it can be taken back. As in the Torah where we are only trustees of God’s earth, in the conception of the awards, we are only trustees of the honour. In Hebrews, if people profess to be God’s and that God is theirs but fail to live up to that confession of their faith, they become a disgrace to God. The same is true of the Order of Canada; holders are required to sustain the trust put into them by the Canadian state. That is why the honour was taken away from Garth Drabinsky and Alan Eagleson, Conrad Black and Steve Fonyo because of their criminal convictions, and David Ahenakew for his anti-Semitic remarks.

However, what made the day last Thursday were the people being honoured. What a terrific lot!

 

Tomorrow: Recipients of the Order of Canada

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Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23): An Eye for an Eye and Blasphemers

I am a blasphemer. Not in how I use God’s name as a swear word. I swear very little if at all. I am probably not a blasphemer in contravention of the Third Commandment that instructs us, “not to bear the name of YHWH in vain.” (Exodus 20:7) However, I am a blasphemer deep in my heart and even deeper in my mind. This is not a charge stated lightly or carelessly. Rather, it is an onerous one and is the main reason I find this week’s portion so intriguing.

What is a blasphemer?

Parashat Emor is primarily about the equation of purity and holiness and, more particularly, how priests are to avoid becoming “polluted”. Yet, incongruously, the portion ends with the stoning of the blasphemer just before the law of retaliation (lex talionis) is repeated. The two sides of the sandwich, rules of retaliation and priestly injunctions against pollution, are critical to my understanding of blasphemy and how it should be treated by a community.

Let me begin with the injunction of an eye for an eye, the injunction to retaliate. Verses 24:19-20 read as follows:

ויקרא כד:יט וְאִ֕ישׁ כִּֽי־יִתֵּ֥ן מ֖וּם בַּעֲמִית֑וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה כֵּ֖ן יֵעָ֥שֶׂה לּֽוֹ: כד:כ שֶׁ֚בֶר תַּ֣חַת שֶׁ֔בֶר עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֥ן מוּם֙ בָּֽאָדָ֔ם כֵּ֖ן יִנָּ֥תֶן בּֽוֹ: Lev If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: 24:20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.

This is not an abstract imperative to me. Last Monday I was operated on my left eye. It was injured when I was seven-years old. Doctors removed a piece of lead, stitched up my pupil and for over fifty years I could only discern light and dark; through that eye, everything only looked like various shades of a cloud. Once just over twenty years ago when we were driving north on Vaughan Avenue just south of St. Clair Ave. W. and I was in the passenger seat, I suddenly exclaimed aloud, “I can see! I can see!” For the first time in over five decades on the big billboard on the north side I could discriminate actual shapes with my left eye – blurry though they were. I even saw some sort of difference in colour, though, when I checked, not quite what others saw. But the recovery of some sight in the left eye was “a miracle.” I could see with my left eye, not clearly, but see nevertheless.

Over the years since, contrary to the pattern of most people, my sight in that eye gradually improved so that I began to be able to identify shapes and even read very large print. The improvement was attributed to the fact that the scar tissue on my pupil had gradually become smoother over the years and had become more and more transparent. My retina had never been injured. It was suggested that I get laser surgery and there was a good chance that my vision would improve even more.

When I was first told about this, I was informed that there was a risk, not a tiny one but a significant chance that there would be no further improvement and that the improvement in my vision would even be set back. The main reason was that my pupil had been misshapen by the injury and laser surgery would be riskier. I decided not to take the risk and rather enjoyed the gradual improvement in my sight in my left eye over the last two decades.

Then four things happened. First, I had begun to develop cataracts in my eyes, much worse in my partially-sighted left eye than my right, and my vision in that eye had begun to become more blurred again. Second, laser surgery had improved enormously and the chances of success had changed dramatically. Third, my optometrist, whom I saw regularly, seemed more dedicated to improving my eyesight than I was and “insisted” that I see a surgeon. Fourth, in the test for my surgery, at least in one of the tests, the technician put a blackout lens over my right eye and a dark lens with pinholes in it over my left eye. I was asked to read the letters on the screen.

Miracle of miracles! I could read every single letter, right down to the tiny ones on the final line. Clearly, I could even have perfect vision out of that eye if the light was allowed to reach the retina easier and perhaps more directly and more focused. I joyfully acquiesced to the surgery.

A week ago Monday I had the surgery. This Wednesday I went for my follow-up examination. I could read through the left eye all but the bottom row of letters on the black-and-white screen. I had been rewarded with 20/30 vision. Success!

What does this story have to do with a revenge ethic let alone with blasphemy? The full context of the injury helps clarify the relevance. When I was seven-years-old, fifteen months younger than my late older brother (he eventually became a highly-regarded cardiologist), he had just turned nine. As he did his homework at the kitchen table in our house on Ulster Street, I began to tease him mercilessly for having to take school work home and for not finishing everything at school or even dispensing with it quickly when we got home. Finally, in rage and exasperation at the continual interruptions and the constant teasing, he turned and flung his pencil at me. The pencil hit my left eye and the end piece of the lead broke off and remained lodged in my pupil.

That was on a Thursday after school. We did not know the extent of the damage at the time, or that the lead had been lodged in the pupil. My eye just stung and kept watering. The nurse was not in the school on Friday and I was sent to see her first thing on Monday morning. She immediately called my mother and I was rushed to Sick Children’s Hospital in the old building on College Street that now houses the blood bank. I was operated on the same day and spent the next three weeks in the hospital graduating by steps from a black mask to a Lone Ranger mask and then a black pirate patch over my left eye.

Other than eating salty porridge – sugar was still rationed immediately after WWII – my memory of the hospital in a general ward with about twenty other young boys was that we had had a wild great time over the three weeks of my stay. My blind eye has just become a fact about me. Because I had very dark brown eyes, no one noticed that the left pupil was turned upwards unlike my young friend, Charlie Menkes, who had an external scar over his eye where he had been cut. In contrast to me, everyone knew he was blind in his left eye.

What if the law of retribution had been in effect? Would my brother have lost sight in his left eye because he had thrown the pencil? Even though I had provoked the action? After all, the injunction simply stated that, “The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.” How unjust that would have been! And my late bother might not have become the brilliant medical diagnostician he turned out to be.

The lex talionis was not nuanced like the Hammurabi Code that only required an eye for an eye if a noble had been injured. The person would only have to pay a few shekels if the victim had been a commoner or even half that value if he were a slave. If he was a Mesopotamian, my brother would have been forced to pay me his earnings for perhaps a few hours of work for I too was just a commoner. But we were not Mesopotamians. We were Jews. And the law in the Torah regarded everyone as equal and requiring the same retributive punishment.

The injunction of an eye for an eye is one part of the narrative, the top slice of the sandwich. I have already written about the other side-story, the bottom slice that occurs in Leviticus, God’s sudden slaying of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, for who knows what – because they erred as priests in bringing alien fire into the Holy of Holies, because they might have been a bit tipsy, or for a myriad of other rationales that rabbinic authorities have dreamt up to excuse such murderous divine action without giving the victim a hearing or any due process let alone some slack. Unlike alleged pollution of the holy, at least an injured eye only required injuring the eye of the one who caused the injury and not sudden and immediate death. Thank God my brother had only injured me physically and not polluted the purity of God’s holy place.  I regard these rare side-stories as perhaps throwing more light on the law than all the details of that law.

Which brings me to the blasphemer. (Leviticus 24:10-12) In the camp, there was a fight between two boys, presumably young adults rather than young boys like my brother and myself. The two boys were not brothers at all. Both mothers were Israelites, but the father of one was an Egyptian while the father of the other was an Israelite. Had the young lad with the Israelite father provoked the other boy by calling him a half-breed? Had the boy with the Egyptian father responded by cursing the Israelite God?

Whatever the back story, the son of the Egyptian father was put in the stocks to await YHWH’s decision about his punishment. Note, there is no indication that the one boy injured the other in the fight, only that he blasphemed God. But was this a different example of retributive punishment? What happened? Presumably God’s honour was far more important than a blinded eye for God ordered the Israelites to take the lad outside the community and stone him.

ויקרא כד:יג וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:כד:יד הוֹצֵ֣א אֶת הַֽמְקַלֵּ֗ל אֶל מִחוּץ֙ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וְסָמְכ֧וּ כָֽל הַשֹּׁמְעִ֛ים אֶת יְדֵיהֶ֖ם עַל רֹאשׁ֑וֹ וְרָגְמ֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ כָּל הָעֵדָֽה: Lev 24:13 And YHWH spoke to Moses saying, 24:14 “Bring out the curser outside of the camp and all who heard him will lean their hands upon his head, and the whole community will stone him.”

Was this similar to the treatment meted out to Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu? The treatment of the son of the Egyptian father seems much worse or, at the very least, much gorier. Nadab and Abihu seemed to be instantly consumed by God’s fire. The son of the Egyptian father and the Israelite mother, Shelomith, clearly suffered a much slower and more agonizing death. However, there is an indication that the blasphemous son of the Egyptian father, is, like King Josiah, the real hero of the story. Like Rebecca, the mother of the son with the Egyptian father was Shelomit, daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan. Such a description was a lofty honorific.

Was racism involved? Was the son of the Egyptian father really being punished for being of “mixed blood” and, therefore, a symbol of the so-called pollution of the nation through intermarriage, through breeding cattle of one kind with cattle of another kind? Did such alleged “pollution” defile Eretz Israel, the Holy Land itself?

That seems not to be the case. The bloody mob execution was not racist. It appears that the text condemns racism. After all, Miriam got a skin disease for chastising Moses for taking an Ethiopian bride. The following verse is even clearer and reads as follows:

ויקרא כד:טו וְאֶל בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל תְּדַבֵּ֣ר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֥ישׁ אִ֛ישׁ כִּֽי יְקַלֵּ֥ל אֱלֹהָ֖יו וְנָשָׂ֥א חֶטְאֽוֹ: כד:טז וְנֹקֵ֤ב שֵׁם־יְ-הֹוָה֙ מ֣וֹת יוּמָ֔ת רָג֥וֹם יִרְגְּמוּ ב֖וֹ כָּל הָעֵדָ֑הכַּגֵּר֙ כָּֽאֶזְרָ֔ח בְּנָקְבוֹ־שֵׁ֖ם יוּמָֽת: Lev 24:15 And to the children of Israel you will speak, saying: any man who will curse his God will bear his sin.  24:16 And one who will pierce the name of YHWH will surely be put to death.  The whole community will surely stone him, like stranger and like citizen; when he pierces the name he will die.”

It did not matter who cursed God. Israelite or son of an Egyptian were to be treated the same – stoned and murdered for cursing God. Should we be delighted that in this case egalitarian principles of equality before the law trumped racism? Shawna Dolansky a professor at Carleton University whom I have cited favourably before, seems to think so. I myself find this type of compensatory rationale, however valid in bringing out the principle of equality before the law, to be a distraction from the law that required blasphemers to be stoned.

Dr. Serge Frolov finds this injunction to kill blasphemers to be an embarrassment to the religious and body politic of Israel. I, on the other hand, find it intriguing. Perhaps the one who cursed God was not a reference to him in a racist or nationalist sense, but that he was an Egyptian in his heart, that he belonged to the class of people who prevented the Israelites from being liberated. On the other hand, even though he dissed God, perhaps it was he who at this time lived among the Israelites and now stood on the side of liberation and freedom as well as equality. Perhaps he stood as a foil in contrast to those who stone others for using God’s name as a curse word and who demand an eye for an eye. Perhaps the son of the Egyptian was a symbol of one who challenges the premises of both injunctions and argues that the God of Israel is a God of self-revelation, is a God that learns the lessons of excess zealotry and reverence for purity, is a God who gradually, through intercourse with flawed humans, learned too of His own flaws and learned as well to accept responsibility and to diss His inhumanity.

Afterword I

Ignoring for the moment those who simply deride the barbarism of such laws, this stance is quite different from that of most Reform Jews, who avoid discussing such injunctions that they find embarrassing. Others, supply twisted rationales. Still others, mainly a few evangelical Christians, believe that such demands should be taken literally and enforced. Certainly, in their own way from their own sacred texts, Islamicists from the Taliban and ISIS take similar injunctions literally. What about interpreters like myself who try to understand the plot, the characters and the theme in terms of the textual context and the thrust of the narrative?

The story begins with two boys struggling. Unlike Cain and Abel or Jacob and Esau, they are not blood brothers. But they are at odds. But like those stories, in the struggle, the one favoured by God (Abel) or by Isaac (Esau) is not the one that becomes the carrier of the historical narrative. Cain and Jacob win but carry the wounds of that victory similar to the way Jacob limps after wrestling with the angel. Similarly, after an enraged Moses killed the overseer for his barbaric treatment of the Hebrew slave, the next day when he found two Hebrews fighting (Exodus 2:13) and asked why one Hebrew had struck his fellow Hebrew, the striker bravely retorted and asked why Moses was acting so high and mighty. Then he mocked Moses responding, “Do you think you can kill me like you killed the Egyptian?”

This story of the stoning of the son of an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother echoes that one, for the son of the Egyptian God, like Moses, acts out of rage, not to kill as Moses did, but to use God’s name as a curse word. But unlike Moses, the Israelites do not flee for they are now on their own land. Further, it is the Israelites who perform the unseemly violence, not Moses, and not in wrath, but in a cool-headed and cold-hearted belief that they were just inflicting a divinely sanctioned punishment for simply using God’s name in vain.

This fighting (נִצִּים) that takes place in both cases is not simply a physical fight, but a struggle to find the correct path and the norms. And like the pattern throughout the Torah, somehow, the choice originally taken seems the worse one, whether the injunction flouted is one of protecting the purity of the Holy of Holies or the name of the Holy One Himself. It will take humanity to soften and amend the harshness of God’s pristine and inflexible commandments.

That is reason enough to be a blasphemer.

Afterword II

Note that, unlike the case of Aaron’s two sons, towards whom God took umbrage, it is the Israelites who arrest the son of the Egyptian father and Israelite mother for cursing God.  God simply delivers the verdict. But God does not get off the hook so easily. We all know the nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you.” Just as it is totally unjust to take an eye for an eye, it is far worse to take a life simply for dissing God. Unless – an important unless – the name of God is His life essence. Blasphemy is not simply using God’s name as a curse word, but abusing God’s name, God’s reputation.

Is this not like Putin punishing dissidents or Erdoğan arresting Turks for insulting the highest authority in the land or Donald Trump insisting that dedicated civil servants be fired for besmirching the name of The Donald. After all, what else is Trump, for better or for worse, but his brand? Isn’t that true of God? And is it not much more of a blasphemy than using God’s name as a swear word to comparing YHWH to Putin, Erdoğan and Trump? Does that not make me a blasphemer in my heart and mind much more deserving of being stoned than the son of the Egyptian father and Israelite mother who used God’s name as a curse or my brother who, in justified anger, threw a pencil at my eye?

All the twisting of the story to turn it upside down and inside out to insist it is a warning against the Israelites insulting anyone’s god, is a lesson against religiously inspired violence based on the belief that insulting the divine name is a most serious and egregious transgression, is not only beside the point, but a more repulsive apologetic in the name of higher principles than all the Talmudic rabbis who try to justify the injunction.

I am more worthy of being cursed because I challenge not only God’s holiness as giving Him an immunity, but the whole idea of separating the holy and unpolluted from the profane and unpolluted. For the nitty-gritty of ethics is to be found in the profane rather than in any abstract vision of purity or perfection. That is why rabbinic Judaism was superior to either the puritanism of the Essenes or the priestly ritualism, even if it often slipped back into the errors of its close predecessors and contemporaries.

 

Hail to heartfelt and mindful blasphemers!

Declarations of Independence – Israel and the United States of America

Political comparisons are difficult and sometimes questionable. It is one thing to compare apples and oranges. It is another to compare cherries and potatoes. Do the two items being compared even belong to the same genus? However, whatever the difficulty in making comparisons, there are clear benefits. In this case, the very process of comparison shifts the ground away from making the American declaration the prototype and considering all other expressions of the same genus as either poorer imitations or outliers. Further, new and very different grounds may be used to justify independence. David Hume (about whom more later) in his 1746 volume, Of the Original Contract wrote that any group or people require a justificatory story and “a philosophical or speculative system of principles.” (40)

With an expanded set of explanatory-interpretive justifications, we become more open to both interpretive possibilities as well as limitations on our own thinking. We also see how common problems intermingled with very different ones offer deeper or, at the very least, alternative understandings of the two proclamations. Finally, assumptions built into the model considered to be paradigmatic suddenly can be openly questioned in light of very different justifications and rationales. We enter the arena of cross-cultural comparisons rather than a presumed derivation or deviation from a universal model.

The actual comparison will offer a test of these presumptions.

A minor but important consideration requires attending to what is being compared. In Israel, the only issue is one of an adequate translation into English of the declaration since that is the language being used for comparison. There is only one authentic document. However, in the U.S., there is the 7 June 1776 version introduced at the Second Continental Congress by Richard Henry Lee. Then there is the revised version (the Dunlap copy) introduced on 4 July 1776 which has a different title (“In Congress July 4, 1776, A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled.”) than the “final” official version of 19 July, if only because of the inclusion in the latter of New York State as a signatory, and the declaration of the status of the document as unanimous. (“The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America“) However, the changes from the original to the revered copy are not central to my comparative analysis.

The latter issue, however, focuses on the authors of the proclamation as pre-eminent in the U.S. declaration. The authors are presumed to be political entities that have come together to a) become sovereign and b) become independent of the state which had been sovereign. However, the latter is secondary, as we shall see. The primary declaration is about the sovereignty of a people. The document only later was referred to as a declaration of independence as the war rather than political maneuvering became the main instrument for delivering that sovereignty.

So the opening sentence reads: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Note the following:

  1. The emphasis on necessity.
  2. The statement that the constituent members of the thirteen states are “one people,” thus declaring that, although the signatories are representatives of thirteen political entities, the proclamation is issued on behalf of “one people.” This will be crucial to the resistance of the north to a second secession in the American Civil War.
  3. The emphasis is on “dissolution” of existing political ties.
  4. The result will be a single sovereign state equal to others that exist on Earth.
  5. The entitlement is seen as twofold: Natural Law and Nature’s God (my italics); (I will deal with this in more detail in the next blog).
  6. The importance of justification for the act of separation.

Compare the above to the opening paragraph of the Israeli declaration of independence. “ARETZ-ISRAEL [(Hebrew) – the Land of Israel, Palestine] was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”

The U.S. declaration begins with “one people.” The Israeli declaration begins with the land of Israel. There is no claim that the land in North America was the birthplace of the “one people” on behalf of whom the declaration was issued. In history, rather, there was a presumption that the birthplace of the people was Britain and that these were Brits largely of Scottish-Irish (northern and Protestant) descent who were declaring themselves to be one people as a distinct political nation from the Tory High Anglican character of their motherland. Of the 56 who signed, 16 were Welsh. Although individuals ratified the document on behalf of states, 8 were Irish American Orangemen, 3 born in Ireland; all of the Irish officially signed the document together on 2 August 1776. At least 9 were of Scottish origin. In a speech, George W. Bush even traced the roots of the U.S. Declaration of Independence to the 1320 Scots’ Declaration of Arbroath arguing for Scotland’s freedom from England. Thus, over half had Celtic heritage.

More importantly, their intellectual heritage was Scottish. The heritage of the Scottish Enlightenment had perhaps the greatest influence on the American Declaration of Independence. Though Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the first version, was of mixed French and Irish ancestry, he is not included among the Celts, but he openly acknowledged that John Locke had been the greatest influence on his thinking. I well remember giving a lecture at the University of Edinburgh with portraits of John Locke, Adam Smith and David Hume on the walls. The era of the Scottish Enlightenment following the Dutch one was the portal to the modern world and one must stand in humility beneath those portraits.

Locke in the Second Treatise on Civil Government had set forth the thesis that all men are born equal with natural rights, rights which enabled them to determine whom they would bind with to form a people. A nation, therefore, was a construct itself of the self-determination of individuals who entered a social contract for mutual defense and benefit. David Hume, who died in the same year as the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed, argued that, although justification required citing history and general principles, the primary motivation for action was passion or sentiment. “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (Treatise of Human Nature, II, iii, 1740) This would serve as a subversive strain in the American character given a scientific rationale through the recent works of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and George Lakoff.

John Locke, however, offered the dominant prescription for a government of, by and for the people. On very different grounds, both he and David Hume detested the Tory thesis of the divine right of kings and the pre-eminent sovereignty of the monarch which forbad revolution against the king. However, they offered a very different ground for the formation of a nation. Whatever differences over the motivation for a social contract, both agreed that a social contract was a foundation for the legitimacy of a state.

Not so in Israel. The people were formed by a land and a history rooted in a great historical document, the Torah of the Jews. Their identity was not constituted by a contract of self-interested individuals to ensure the security and happiness of those Jews, but by that history and the formation of their ancient state that shaped their culture. Though not derived from alleged universal principles and more akin to the moral sentiment espoused by David Hume, the Israeli declaration made the claim that the Jewish culture had a universal significance.

There is no foundation in logical or natural necessity for the Israeli proclamation. The declaration of independence did not constitute Jews as a people; peoplehood preceded the declaration of the State of Israel of 1948 or even the Israel of ancient history. The emphasis is not on dissolution of existing ties, but on re-constituting ancient ties both to the land and one another. Thus, the emphasis in the second paragraph on exile and return and restoration. However, the same idea of freedom forges a link between the two declarations which may go back to the days when the members of the Dutch Enlightenment (Hugo Grotius for example) had such an enormous influence on the Scottish Enlightenment since the Dutchmen justified the separation of the Netherlands from Spain, knew Hebrew and used the history of the Jewish people, adapted for Dutch purposes to justify the separate but equal status of the Netherlands.

The Israeli document bears the sweet scent, not of equality among nations, but about historical leadership by the People of the Book. They shall be a light among the nations. Finally, two-thirds of the American document focuses on tales of oppression and absence of recognition, whereas the Israeli document cites the worst type of oppression, genocide, but, more importantly, a history of recognition from the British (the Balfour Declaration), League of Nations and United Nations rulings. The Israeli state is rooted more in the international law of Hugo Grotius than in the social contract theories of John Locke and David Hume.

The traditional attachment, however, is vintage Hume. Further, the nation preceded the state and was not constituted by a social contract forming the state. The authors of the proclamation are not representatives of existing states seeking sovereignty, but of a nation seeking to reclaim its sovereignty. Thus, though referred to as the key document behind Israel’s Independence Day, the document does not seem to be about independence. The primary declaration of the American Declaration of Independence is about the formation of a sovereign people; the primary declaration of the Israeli Declaration of Independence is about the pre-existing sovereignty of a people.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Declaring Independence – An Introduction

This week, Raúl Castro at the age of 86 finally transferred his position as President of Cuba to a non-Castro successor, 57 year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel, if even in name only. He did not transfer political power at the same time, for he retained control over the Communist Party of Cuba. This was not the longed-for political step towards liberalization. A year ago, Castro had declared that, “Cuba and the United States can cooperate and live side by side, respecting their differences, but no one should expect that for this, one should have to make concessions inherent to one’s sovereignty and independence.”

In declaring independence, what characteristics are inherent to sovereignty and independence upon which there can be no concessions? By focusing on those, one can tease out much more precisely what national leaders mean when they declare their sovereign independence. Many countries have made such declarations – Norway did so from Sweden in 1814 by convening a constituent assembly, though Sweden took until 1905 to fully recognize that independence; on 17 July 1992, the Slovak parliament adopted its Declaration of Independence of the Slovak nation from the Czechs. Those two were “velvet” separations. In Sudan, on 9 July 2011 in Juba, South Sudan declared its independence from Sudan after a long war that began in 1955. A host of other colonies declared independence from the imperial powers that previously held ultimate power over their people and territory also after long, protracted wars.

I concentrate on the Declarations of Independence of Israel because yesterday was Yom Haatzmaut 5778 when Israel celebrated 70 years since it declared independence. The document is also unique and distinctive in several ways. I also focus on the Declaration of Independence of the United States because it is seen by most observers to be a prototype for such declarations. Further, if you try to look up declarations of independence on Google, the first dozens of references will be to the U.S. as if the generic can be equated with a specific example of one species.

A declaration is a formal announcement to proclaim either what you contend you have or what you aspire to have, in this case, absolute and ultimate sovereignty over a people and its land. Helpfully, the Israeli Declaration of Independence is a written document. So is that of the American declaration. Even though the circumstances were radically different, the two documents can be used to gain insight into the reasons the declaration was made and the historical conditions that propelled such a declaration. More importantly for me, the philosophical and political presumptions are built into the proclamations.

The first thing to note about the Israeli document issued on 14 May 1948 is that it is not a declaration of independence from but a declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel. Second, the document is significant as much for the recognition granted to the status claimed by the proclamation within a few minutes by the United States of America, and, within three days by the USSR.

Except for a minor postscript that follows, this morning I simply want to put before you the document so that you can read it. The analysis will follow in the next few blogs.

ARETZ-ISRAEL [(Hebrew) – the Land of Israel, Palestine] was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.

After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.

Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, ma’pilim [(Hebrew) – immigrants coming to Eretz-Israel in defiance of restrictive legislation] and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country’s inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.

In the year 5657 (1897), at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodore Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country.

This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of the 2nd November, 1917, and re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations which, in particular, gave international sanction to the historic connection between the Jewish people and Eretz-Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home.

The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations.

Survivors of the Nazi holocaust in Europe, as well as Jews from other parts of the world, continued to migrate to Eretz-Israel, undaunted by difficulties, restrictions and dangers, and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland.

In the Second World War, the Jewish community of this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom- and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations.

On the 29th November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable.

This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.

ACCORDINGLY WE, MEMBERS OF THE PEOPLE’S COUNCIL, REPRESENTATIVES OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY OF ERETZ-ISRAEL AND OF THE ZIONIST MOVEMENT, ARE HERE ASSEMBLED ON THE DAY OF THE TERMINATION OF THE BRITISH MANDATE OVER ERETZ-ISRAEL AND, BY VIRTUE OF OUR NATURAL AND HISTORIC RIGHT AND ON THE STRENGTH OF THE RESOLUTION OF THE UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY, HEREBY DECLARE THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A JEWISH STATE IN ERETZ-ISRAEL, TO BE KNOWN AS THE STATE OF ISRAEL.

WE DECLARE that, with effect from the moment of the termination of the Mandate being tonight, the eve of Sabbath, the 6th Iyar, 5708 (15th May, 1948), until the establishment of the elected, regular authorities of the State in accordance with the Constitution which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948, the People’s Council shall act as a Provisional Council of State, and its executive organ, the People’s Administration, shall be the Provisional Government of the Jewish State, to be called “Israel”.

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

THE STATE OF ISRAEL is prepared to cooperate with the agencies and representatives of the United Nations in implementing the resolution of the General Assembly of the 29th November, 1947, and will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of Eretz-Israel.

WE APPEAL to the United Nations to assist the Jewish people in the building-up of its State and to receive the State of Israel into the comity of nations.

WE APPEAL – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.

WE EXTEND our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.

WE APPEAL to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.

PLACING OUR TRUST IN THE “ROCK OF ISRAEL”, WE AFFIX OUR SIGNATURES TO THIS PROCLAMATION AT THIS SESSION OF THE PROVISIONAL COUNCIL OF STATE, ON THE SOIL OF THE HOMELAND, IN THE CITY OF TEL-AVIV, ON THIS SABBATH EVE, THE 5TH DAY OF IYAR, 5708 (14TH MAY,1948).

David Ben-Gurion

Daniel Auster
Mordekhai Bentov
Yitzchak Ben Zvi
Eliyahu Berligne
Fritz Bernstein
Rabbi Wolf Gold
Meir Grabovsky
Yitzchak Gruenbaum
Dr. Abraham Granovsky
Eliyahu Dobkin
Meir Wilner-Kovner
Zerach Wahrhaftig
Herzl Vardi
Rachel Cohen
Rabbi Kalman Kahana
Saadia Kobashi
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Levin
Meir David Loewenstein
Zvi Luria
Golda Myerson
Nachum Nir
Zvi Segal
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Hacohen Fishman
David Zvi Pinkas
Aharon Zisling
Moshe Kolodny
Eliezer Kaplan
Abraham Katznelson
Felix Rosenblueth
David Remez
Berl Repetur
Mordekhai Shattner
Ben Zion Sternberg
Bekhor Shitreet
Moshe Shapira
Moshe Shertok

* Published in the Official Gazette, No. 1 of the 5th, Iyar, 5708 (14th May, 1948).

 

A Minor Postscript.

 

On the very day that Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland made her second trip to Washington to meet with her U.S. and Mexican counterparts over NAFTA, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau was in that same capital city to attend a working dinner of the finance ministers and bank governors of the G20 at  IMF headquarters, is Canada recognized as an independent sovereign nation by the U.S. when Canada must continually negotiate its economic interdependence and, more specifically, when even an esteemed, and justly so, venerable newspaper like The Washington Post cannot spell the capital of Canada correctly? (You – meaning me – should complain, you who miss typos all the time!) From today’s paper: “As the United Nations urges Canada to do more to help its “peacekeeping” mission in Mali, a piece in The Globe and Mail says Ottowa (sic!) needs to get more specific before it ramps up its efforts.” Perhaps Major-General Lewis MacKenzie (retired), who wrote the redacted article, should be blamed for he failed to use the name of the capital of Canada, and, by implication, identify the country with the shenanigans of its capital city.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

Sacrifice

Yom HaZikaron begins at sundown. This evening and tomorrow some of us memorialize those fallen in war and as victims of terror in Israel. Note two points. First, it is not a holiday about Jews who have died, but about any soldiers who have died on behalf of Israel. Though the vast majority have been Jewish, some of those who sacrificed their lives for the country were not. Second, the day is also defined as a memorial for the victims of terror as well, and these were mostly civilians. Though most of the publicity refers to fallen soldiers, the full and proper name of the memorial day is: Yom Hazikaron l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot Ha’eivah (יוֹם הזִּכָּרוֹן לַחֲלָלֵי מַעֲרָכוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְנִפְגְעֵי פְּעוּלוֹת הָאֵיבָה) “Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism.” Originally, the day commemorated and was a “General Memorial Day for the Heroes of the War of Independence.”

23,645 deaths of soldiers were commemorated, up 101 from the year before, and the deaths of 3,134 terror victims were also commemorated. The solemnity of the day is hard to convey to those outside Israel. The one minute of silence this evening and two minutes at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow morning are but a small part of the ceremonies. Normal broadcasting stops. Traffic totally stops when the siren for silence sounds. Throughout the land, there are memorial services, intimate family ones, communal ones, mostly in synagogues, and large civic and military ones.  The day commemorates the sacrifices made to establish and maintain an independent state of Israel. You cannot have the latter without the willingness to give one’s life as a sacrifice.

For example, the American Declaration of Independence (tomorrow, I will compare the Israeli and American declarations) ends with these words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honour.” In many nations, independence is only achieved because of the willingness to sacrifice. However, in Israel, sacrifices of one’s possessions – animals and grains in an agricultural society (korban  קָרְבָּן) – are radically distinguished from self-sacrifice. The former is intended to bring man closer to God; korban means ‘be near’. The latter are in service of bringing humans closer to one another in forging the spirit of a nation. The former takes place to compensate for sins; after the destruction of the temple the second time, worship, prayer and philosophic reflection replaced such sacrificial acts. The latter take place even though sins may be entailed.

 As Golda Meir once said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” To take the life of another is a sin, whether in self-defence or in murder. That is inscribed in the flesh of every male Jewish child. Nahmanides taught, and it is widely believed among Jews, that the near sacrifice of Isaac memorialized replacing all human sacrifices with animal sacrifices. I believe that the near sacrifice of Isaac is memorialized in the token cutting away of the prepuce of the male penis to signify that for some causes, such as that of a nation, fathers are willing to sacrifice their children. The circumcision inscribes into the body that fathers, to some degree, cannot be trusted for they are willing to sacrifice their children in war to achieve a greater horizontal nearness among men.

As I indicated in a blog several days ago, some evangelical Christians believe that they sacrifice themselves in service to a pagan Trump because Trump will serve God’s purpose in bringing about a believed restoration of the Christian (white) nation. Trump is turned into a mere instrument for a higher purpose and for the past. However, sacrificing oneself for one’s nation is not a higher purpose, but a future purpose. It has a time dimension. It says that the sacrifice is necessary for the future of one’s nation and for your children’s children.

What about when God sacrifices humans? In last week’s portion, He did precisely that. And before an altar. After a very long description of the various modes of sacrifice, their purposes and rituals and the very lofty ceremonies installing Aaron as the High priest and his two sons as priests, God incinerates those same two sons.

א  וַיִּקְחוּ

 

 

בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם.

1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
ב  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

 

The only clue that God had a rationale is the reference to a strange or alien fire that Nadab and Abihu used in the sacrifice. Were they killed because they were innovators and did not adhere absolutely strictly to the regulations set down by God? That is the main interpretation of Moses’ rationale in verse 3. “Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.” This and a myriad of other rationales were offered over the years by commentators – the two brothers had come to their jobs tipsy; their garments were not in immaculate order. Many others using more twisted but somewhat ingenious hermeneutics.

But the verse can be read in a very opposite way – the two sons were not unintended contrarians too distant from God’s precise commands, but, rather, the sacrifice of the two boys by God’s fire was intended to bring humans even closer to God. Just as later it would be said that it is through the sacrifice of Jesus that humans can become one with God, so his portion of Leviticus it is through the incineration of the priests one time, and one time only, that man can be brought nearer to God. That is why Aaron was silent and neither protested nor lamented the loss of his two boys.  That is why the whole nation was commanded, not to bewail the loss, but to “bewail the burning which the Lord hath kindled.”

God planted fire in the human body in the image of the Lord. It is a passion which can lead humans to create. Or it can turn into an alien flame that will end up incinerating oneself.

Over the last two days I saw two more films. In Phantom Thread, a movie directed by Paul Thompson Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis brilliantly plays a very creepy couturier (Reynolds Woodcock – the name is meaningful) who is an obsessive compulsive mother’s boy who uses women as doormats and designs dresses that, with rare exceptions, are terribly ugly, but are viewed as the epitome of high style taken to be expressions of beauty and the pleasures such beauty brings. What they really illustrate is that fashion taken as art is really a fad of a specific time and place, a trick performed by an artisan to take women in, just as Woodcock does on the interpersonal level. Woodcock takes movement and form and encases it in so much material and so many restrictions that the dress turns into a method of reifying a woman. That is the real secret of the messages he sews into the linings of the dresses he makes.

Another movie I saw last evening contrasted this pretense of exquisite sensibility to overcome the grubbiness of materialism and possessive individualism with a different approach. For it was a bi-op of J. Paul Getty rooted in the drama of his grandson’s 1973 kidnapping by Italians for a ransom.  In Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, Christopher Plumber – who replaced Kevin Spacey in the first effort – in his own way is as brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis, but he plays a more one-dimensional figure, a scrooge who will not even pay a ransom for his grandson, John Paul Getty III (Paul played by Timothy Hutton). Far less creepy than Woodcock, but perhaps even more repulsive, Getty worships reified art and artifacts and despises people. Getty is as fine a dresser as Woodcock, but he uses his grubby possessive materialism to acquire exquisite works of art for their “eternal” beauty. If Woodcock longs for the warmth of his mother’s arms, Getty simply wants to stick it to his dad who never thought he would amount to anything.

The foil for both men are two very independent women, Alma (Vicki Krieps) who is a waitress raised up, in spite of small breasts, wide hips and broad shoulders, to become the muse and model of Woodcock, but who turns out to be an independent force in her own right unwilling to take Woodcock’s efforts to diminish and demolish her while Woodcock only offer sideways glances of recognition and flattery. Gail (Michelle Williams), Getty’s daughter-in-law, married to his dope addict son, is devoted to her children. She is a very different mother than the one presumably Woodcock had, for she is nurturing, caring and self-sacrificing, but not suffocating, even though she personally has almost nothing material to give.

Phantom Thread is a baroque gothic “romance.” All the Money in the World is an action film portraying a real rather than fictional character and an archetypal real-life former C.I.A., Fletcher Chace spy played by Mark Wahlberg .  But the two movies are both about men interested only in sacrificing others, especially women, for themselves, rather than sacrificing themselves for others. Getty is an avatar of possession while Woodcock is an avatar of obsession, the first to use infinite wealth to purchase great art, the second to use his relatively modest wealth to turn a dress into a work of art and his interpretation of aesthetic perfection that is as weird as he is.

The creepiness of both major male figures in the two movies and their foils can be summed up from the women’s point of view by a poem of Mary Carolyn Davies that I used in a play I wrote almost sixty years ago:

Women are door-mats and have been

The years those mats applaud

They keep their men from going in

With muddy feet to God.

There is an ironic note. The one item of obvious fiction in the Getty film is about fire. Gail’s son and Getty’s grandson, Paul, was supposedly an arsonist who got kicked out of school for burning it down and then uses fire to escape his captors near the end of the film. Both initiatives and actions seemed totally out of character because Paul seemed incapable of the initiative to counter God’s fire with his own independent and alien fire. Instead he burned up the rest of his life with heroin smoke until he became a paraplegic. A little historical research goes a long way in helping with interpretation.

Self-sacrifice is to be revered when it serves to knit humans together but when it is used to run away from oneself, the path of destruction follows. It may, however, and often does mean running into the line of fire. And when that happens, we do well to commemorate the sacrifices.

The Dance Macabre

I received three communications directly or indirectly concerning Israel’s Yom HaZikaron or Memorial Day. The only direct one follows and is self-explanatory:

ONE

Greetings from Jerusalem. We are here witnessing what Yom HaZikaron really means to Israelis. Spending yesterday at Mount Herzl and being there with so many young Israelis paying a tribute to those who have died on behalf of Israel, has been a very emotional experience for both of us, myself and my wife. It shall and must be shared with our young diaspora generation in Canada and the States. Seeing, feeling the pain of parents, family members and an entire nation can be only understood when you hold the moment close to your heart as your hand is reaching to touch and feel and to understand.

I am very much honoured to be part of this Israeli’s Memorial Day and experience the indescribable true spirit of the nation.

TWO

The second communication was oral. Like the third, it was a response to the film Foxtrot. This reader of my blog went to see the film even though I had indicated that I was not recommending readers see the movie. She did see it and walked out two-thirds through. But the reason was very different than the source of my advice. I did not want to recommend that the movie be seen because I found the emotional tearing to be just so great in the depiction of how parents feel about the loss of their son in the IDF. This took place in the first and third acts. My reader responded to the second act. (SPOILER ALERT!)

In that act, four Palestinians in a car are inadvertently killed by gunfire from Israeli soldiers. Under their commander’s orders, an excavation machine is brought to this remote and desolate army checkpoint, a large whole is dug and the whole car with the four dead young people inside is buried and the earth scraped back over the hole.

My reader left because what she saw on the screen was a calumny aimed at the Israeli army. She knew the Israeli army would never do anything like that. She thought that this act of the movie would only serve anti-Israel propaganda.

I agreed with her than many if not most viewers would interpret Act II literally instead of as a hyperbolic metaphor for Israel engaging in a cover-up concerning the effects of the occupation on the soul of Israel. Nevertheless, I defended the right of an artist to engage in poetic licence in such surrealist writing and dramatization. My reader remained unconvinced.

THREE

A third reader saw the film, read my review and wrote his own brilliant analysis of the symbolic meaning of the film. He, too, was jarred by the second act, but for very different reasons than myself or my other reader. As he writes, “Act two is a variation on the theme of the fog and chaos of war that does not work for me.” (AGAIN, FULL SPOILER ALERT!) With minor edits, that feedback follows:

At the end of your review of the film, Foxtrot, you invited comments. Here are a few thoughts.

We are glad we went to see the film. We are also glad that none of our friends joined us. It is a difficult film to watch, particularly as a parent, as you indicated.

In your review, you emphasized the metaphor of the foxtrot dance. I am not a dancer and had to look up foxtrot on wiki. A foxtrot was a dance which minimized the chance of inadvertent physical contact. The foxtrot was respectable in earlier days. As such, the foxtrot was the anti-tango.

Who was dancing the foxtrot in the film? I would suggest that, in the first act where the parents receive the news of the fate of their son, the dance is between the young soldier’s family and the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. The agents of the state are trying to be empathetic in the synthetic manner of civil servants who are just doing their job. If they do not know the answer to a question, they say it is not in their job description to know. Beware of clergy and, in particular, chaplains who are working from a manual of administration and related policy directives. In this dance, the civil servants do not do a good job of respecting physical boundaries.

As I recall, they inject a drug into the mother who had fainted without first asking consent of the husband or advising him of the action they are taking. They push the father to drink water and fiddle with his cell phone, without permission, to prompt him to hydrate himself every hour. Has he been medicated too? Water appears to be another important recurring metaphor in the film. In the first act, it is restorative and helps one regain equilibrium.

In the second act, the soldiers know the word foxtrot from the international phonetic alphabet for radio communications: alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, echo, foxtrot, etc. One of them casually mentions that foxtrot is also a dance. There is a scene where a soldier does a little dance on the roadway. I would suggest, however, that the real dance in the second act is between the soldiers manning the checkpoint and the travellers on the road. Each group is careful not to touch the other. That dance changes when a beer can rolls onto the dance floor.

There is a lot of water imagery in the second act. Although the soldiers are in the desert, water appears to be a threat to them or at least a significant nuisance. They slog through pooled water by their makeshift encampment; the metal box in which they live is slowly sinking into the waterlogged ground. They do not appear to be stationed in a life-giving oasis. Water adversely affects their work. There is a storm one night when they check the documents of the couple whom they compel to wait outside their vehicle in the downpour. The abundance of unwanted water makes the desert setting surreal. (my italics)

The camel, itself a water symbol, ambles through the checkpoint from time to time and reinforces the impression that the desert is an unreal place. It is ridiculous to see the barricade be raised and lowered each time to let it pass. Of all the travellers through the checkpoint, the camel also turns out to be the dance partner who was, literally, the only real threat on the road. The other dance partners are pretty well indistinguishable from the soldiers. The various occupants in the vehicles they stop do not dress in ethnically different or identifiable ways. One merchant appears to be carrying a load of garish toys. A robotic toy soldier is left behind to goose step on the highway until it falls over by itself still kicking. Every detail in the second act reinforces the feeling that the desert checkpoint is surreal. (my italics)

In the third act, I would suggest that the dance is between the father and mother of the soldier. At the outset of the act, they are beyond the touching stage. They are not living together. They are still parents, together. They reminisce. The father mentions a couple of times that he was the happiest when they were living by the sea in earlier times. In the third act, water is again a positive, life-affirming image. Although grounded in bitter reality, they are unable to agree on the ultimate meaning of their son’s last sketch from the desert. They are entering a softer reality of individual projected thoughts helped along by a bottle of wine and their son’s stash. Still, the parents’ dance is the only one of the three that conveys hope. The last dance represents more than just the movements of people who are playing out their roles – and represents more than a formal social dance between hostile strangers.

So, should one applaud after the music finally stops?

Act one suggests that when the dance is real, things get surreal. The very real news of the death of the son is followed by a banal, but also surreal, bureaucratic process. Ultimately, the news becomes unreal too. I would have clapped my hands after the first dance.

Act two suggests that when the dance is surreal, very real things can happen. The need for a barricade and dance of inspection in the middle of a wet spot in the desert appears bizarre. The reality is, however, that death wants to cut in and dance too. Act two is a variation on the theme of the fog and chaos of war that does not work for me. I would have refrained from clapping after the second dance.

Act three suggests that one can dance by the sea at sunset with the one who used to love you. I would not clap after this dance either unless it was in a Hollywood musical.

Regardless, in my opinion, Foxtrot does work as a sum of its parts. As I mentioned at the outset, I am glad that we went out in the ice storm to see the movie. lt is just difficult to know to whom to recommend this film.

A FOURTH ACT OR AFTERWORD

First, as a foreword, I offer a brief, and possibly controversial, potted history of indulgences that at first may appear totally unrelated and even far-fetched. The institution developed over two successive and distinct phases, with a number of mutations within each phase during the Middle Ages. The practice continues into the present. For example, almost ten years ago, the Apostolic Penitentiary issued a decree granting indulgences to those who undertook a pilgrimage during the Pauline Year to the Basilica of Saint John outside the Roman walls.

Indulgences were instituted to relieve parishioners of penances. The first phase of their development began with the Crusades and the wars between Christendom and the advancing militant Muslim faith. The Muslims had a clear psychological advantage in their war with the Christians. If one of their warriors died in battle for their faith, they were considered martyrs and guaranteed a place in heaven. In contrast, Christian soldiers who died in battle without confessing and receiving the final rites, not only lacked such a guarantee, they went to purgatory. You can readily see why this posed a morale problem for the Christian armed forces.

The Pope issued a decree which said that any soldier who died in battle for the Christian cause had acted as if he had confessed his sins and would be automatically forgiven without any formal proceeding. The initiative, though welcomed by soldiers, was also greeted by widespread criticism. What about the wounded? What about those permanently handicapped? What about those who lost legs or arms or their very wits? Why should they not be blessed with an indulgence? In response to the criticism, the application was broadened. During the First Crusade in 1099, Pope Urban II expanded the scope even further and remitted all ecclesiastical penance for any armed pilgrim setting off for the Holy Land.

Many civilians who went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land were also martyred by “terrorists.” The application was broadened again. Many Christians lacked the strength or the ability to fight. They were handicapped in some way. For many Christians, the hardships of life, the risks to the flesh and the punishment for sins, were far more onerous than anything that happened to a Christian going to war. The application of the first type of indulgence was changed again. First extended to civilians martyred on the crusades, it was extended to those who were, for some reason, unable to volunteer in the Christian struggle against Islam and paid for a proxy to go to war on his behalf. Thus, did the Indulgence of the Cross mutate into a form that not only raised morale in the religious wars, but raised a good part of the money needed to fight those battles.

The Crusades ended. But the taxation system in the church had come to rely heavily on indulgences as a source of funds. Further, the Church had changed its focus and shifted its energies to building the enormous ornate cathedrals of the Middle Ages. The development of the Indulgence was now detached from the Crusades. You could earn an indulgence by making a pilgrimage to Rome every hundred years; the Jubilee Indulgence.

The Church, however, ran through the money raised for the centenary in only 23 years. The application was changed again. The Church instituted a pilgrimage every 25 years instead of every 100. This Jubilee Indulgence was once again modified to allow it to be a reward for pilgrimages to a myriad of sacred sites and institutions. Soon, one could buy oneself out of or limit the effects of punishment in purgatory for indulgences could be earned in return for purchase of a “sacred” trinket or even for a donation to a “good cause.” As Martin Luther charged, the Church had become corrupt to its core in the process of raising funds to erect its great edifices.

Initially, the 95 theses that Martin Luther had nailed on the church door in Wittenberg was simply an academic disputation. Such was the case when Martin Luther first traveled outside Wittenberg to Heidelberg on 25 April 1518 to defend his theses before the German General Chapter of the Augustine monks. There was no scandal. There were no protests. It was simply another theological academic debate. However, half way between the six months between the event in Heidelberg and those in Augsburg, a momentous event took place that had nothing to do with intellectual debate and everything to do with political hysteria.

But first Augsburg. Last year, Augsburg, Germany, marked its 500th anniversary. Far from being a remote outpost in the desert, Augsburg was central to the Reformation. Many historians argue that the long religious war in Europe between Catholic and Protestant began in Augsburg rather than Wittenberg. In contrast to the proceedings in Heidelberg, Martin Luther was summoned to the free imperial city of Augsburg by the Cardinal and papal legate, Cajetan, to face charges of heresy. In the papal trial for heresy between 7-20 October 1518, Luther refused to deny his Theses as demanded by Cajetan. Luther instead challenged the morality of indulgences and questioned the Pope’s authority.

This moment is very famous in history. Between Heidelberg and Augsburg, a far less well-known event took place in July 1518 in the free city of Strasbourg where grain and grapes met in an economic marriage. The event was the Dancing Epidemic. In that communal psychosis, 400 people in the end participated in day and night dancing so that many, exhausted and dehydrated, died from the strenuous exercise. This was not, as widely conveyed at the time, a punishment from God, but was the culmination of built-in resentments developed over years at the penury of the peasantry and the gerrymandering and restrictions of electors in a period of weather turmoil. Freezing rains in April followed by a scorching summer of drought alternating with torrential rains ruined crops and possibly resulted in new fungal diseases, associated with LSD, that infected the local crops. (CF. Carlos Bracero, “The 1518 Plague of Strasbourg: A Dancing Fever,” 2013) Ergot poisoning from moldy rye seeds was a possible initiating event. Alternatively, encephalopathy associated with streptococcal infection- Sydenham’s chorea – was another possible health issue among young people that could have set off the craze.

While canons, monks and nuns lived in luxury and paid neither taxes nor with their lives to defend the city – very similar to the position of the plutocrats of today – Martin Luther’s 95 theses had set the downtrodden masses on fire to express their outrage at the Church in wild and frenzied physical displays. This hysterical mania followed from earlier greater restrictions on and repressions of the working class and, when some planned a revolt, the participants were beheaded and hung for high treason. The madness of the masses now threatened to disrupt the whole social order and the political leadership responded with new forms of indulgences – opening community centres and outdoor sites to hopefully contain the frenzy.

No more polite and controlled dancing, but a wild frenzy would adumbrate the widespread revolt against the Church set off by the events at Augsburg. In the wild dance of the soldier on that barren outpost in the desert in Foxtrot, is Samuel Maoz being prescient about the outcome of the mad and seemingly unprecedented times through which we are passing? Does the metaphor of the dance have even more political and social significance than my reader brilliantly pointed out in the film?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Adam and Eve

If chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis set the stage for the development of humankind, Chapter 3 provides the frame. Chapter 2, verse 24 ended with a comment on how Adam and Eve felt after they had sex. The two of them were naked and felt no shame. How did they go from being naked and unashamed to being shamed? How did chapter 3 define the frame through which human relations came to be understood by millions of people?

A frame, according to the philosopher and linguist, George Lakoff, offers an ethical and political language in which to embed deep-seated and active values. (Cf. Don’t Think of an Elephant) Those who command the construction and interpretation of the frame determine in large part how we see and respond to the world. The vaguer the frame becomes, the more confused it appears to be, the more likely behaviour will be based on fears rather than on positive values and aspirations. Further, the more that one frame is reinforced by effective metaphors rather than logical arguments, by repetition, interpretation and other means, to that degree will possessors of the frame be able to resist challenges. For the frame is overwhelmingly unconscious and provides the conceptual basis for dealing with our lives and desires.

One interpretation of the Adam and Eve story has set the predominant frame in terms of which male-female relationships, from which all other relationships are derivative, are understood and entail certain types of actions and ruling out others. It goes as follows, recognizing that naming or branding them came later:

  1. Adam and Eve were commanded not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
  2. Eve was tricked by an unscrupulous and shrewd snake to eat thereof.
  3. Eve then seduced Adam.
  4. After they ate, they recognized that they were naked and became ashamed of their nakedness and donned clothes.
  5. God suspected something was amiss.
  6. The man and his wife hid from God ostensibly because they were naked.
  7. God then knew that the two had eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and first confronted Adam.
  8. Adam said it was Eve’s fault.
  9. When Eve was confronted, she said it was the serpent’s fault; he had seduced her.
  10. As a result, the snake was cursed, forced to crawl on its belly and eat dirt, and there would hereafter be enmity between the snake and women.
  11. Woman was cursed a) with suffering extreme pain in giving birth and b) with a desire for her husband and c) acceptance that the husband would rule over her.
  12. Adam was cursed because he would be forced to work all his life by the sweat of his brow until he died.

Let’s call this the family conservative frame since if informs and is reaffirmed by most community conservatives. The frame is taken to mean what it apparently says, that is, it is perceived as a literal rather than metaphorical frame which makes it resistant to other interpretations. Desire and sex are viewed as the source of all evil, but a desire that neither man nor woman can avoid. Hence, the doctrine of original sin. Sex is then viewed as perhaps necessary to satiate uncontrollable desires and, of course, to procreate, but it should only properly take place between a man and his wife in a boundaried context of a mutual but asymmetrical relationship, the woman defined primarily by nurturing and bringing forth children in pain and suffering under the rule of her husband as the final arbiter.

Let us reread the text in terms of another frame, one which primarily accepts the narrative as a metaphor that requires interpretation. Further, instead of stressing negatives and prohibitions, it is a tale about overcoming superego trips for a life of creativity, responsibility and true companionship.  Though there are many variations, let us call it the liberal frame. It differs from the conservative reading in the following respects:

  1. God’s statement to man and woman is not a categorical command but a conditional claim – if you eat of the tree of knowledge, you will die; knowledge of your mortality will be the consequence of having sex.
  2. Nevertheless, God allows his consequentialist declarations to be perceived as absolute moral prohibitions, whereas the task of humans is to see through this critically and to reinforce the rights of self-determination in opposition to such an imposition.
  3. Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil entails man “knowing” a woman and a woman “knowing” a man, that is sex – this is the one common element of both frames.
  4. A consequence of having sex is both recognition of one’s mortality and that recognition is the ground and foundation for humans defining themselves in terms of ethics.
  5. The talking erect serpent is man’s penis seen by man as having a will of its own and is characterized as sly and subtle; the difference however, is that man must recognize this as an act of objectifying his own body, just as he objectified woman by conceiving of her as an extension of himself, and failing to take responsibility for his whole being and his actions.
  6. Most importantly, this reflects on the male disposition to separate his conscious life of objectivity and viewing the world from his unconscious life, so that the male is characterized as inherently torn between an embodied self and a disembodied self that uses language to bring things into cognitive existence through the simple act of naming. Recognizing thought as primarily an act of unconscious framing provides a major step in overcoming this schizophrenia.
  7. The female disposition, on the other hand, is to be embodied, to be sensitive to sensual appeals rather than repressing them, to see relationships as modes of contact and communication rather than objectification, but when such dispositions are asserted, they are readily interpreted by the possessors of the conservative frame as subversive, so there develops a countervailing disposition under social pressure to expand injunctions, to perceive them as superego commands opposed to eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to not even touching; ideally, the woman should be a nun.
  8. The real sin of both the male and the female is one of a cover-up, both in the literal and metaphorical sense, and not taking responsibility for their actions; it is the decision to hide, not the drift into having sex.
  9. Transparency is to be lauded and not seen as a matter of shame.
  10. God does not like them having sex – He intended the future Eve to just be a help-meet, not even a companion and friend let alone a sexual partner.
  11. Through the failure to see the narrative as a metaphor, man perceives his life of work as a burden and a duty from which he longs for escape – either at the end of his days or when he can return to a paradisiacal state of leisure.
  12. For the very same reason, woman sees her life exclusively and burdensomely as a nurturer responsible primarily for giving birth, raising children and subjecting herself to a patriarchal order.

How do we allow one frame to develop and eventually command the way the world is viewed? One is by being educated in art as well as science, by seeing art and the imagination as absolutely critical and central to self-definition. Secondly, it requires using science, using the power of naming, to unveil the unconscious. Third, nurturing must be accepted, not only as the responsibility of both men and women, not only of the role of both men and women in the family, but of the conception of government in which care of one’s fellow citizens is first and foremost followed by care for the rest of the world.

That role of nurturing extends from government to all of civil society, including business and industry. Government is responsible for our health and well being, our safety, our use of public resources, our communications. Without highways and airports, telephones and the internet, our role as humans to facilitate contact and communication will be subverted. Further, and most audaciously, while interpreters of the conservative creed and the literalist interpretation of the core narrative code are perceived as allocating responsibility primarily to the family, the metaphorical interpretation views it as a prime responsibility of government to educate its citizens that government’s prime concern is caring and protecting, not retreating from its responsibilities. Adam Smith does not describe the wealth of nations simply to characterize businesses in open competition in order to maximize themselves, but as trustees served and protected by our governments to enhance the well-being of all. Though corporations may have a propensity to be self-serving, it is the duty of government to establish moral sympathy as the foundation stone and ensure, by means of regulations, that all businesses serve the public good.

Politics are grounded in an ethics of responsibility and accountability rather than an abuse of ethics to cover-up and hide, to be devious and celebrate deviousness. That requires offering your own narrative and interpretation of that narrative, framing and naming experience and thereby your own experience. It means making nurturing and empathy – traditional feminine values – as the core, rather than repression, hard-nosed discipline and patriarchy. The biblical tale begins with the latter, but with the message that it is up to humans to bring forth the former for otherwise the patriarchal God, Elohim, the God of power and domination, will never discover His other side, his mercy and that He is Adonai and not just Elohim. History is the vehicle for the education of both God and humanity. History is not reification but discovery and learning.

God is NOT the source of defining right and wrong. Males are NOT the source of defining right and wrong. Both have a history of failure. But both also have a history of learning from that failure and altering the framework through which they understand the world and act in and upon it. At Passover services the most interesting child is not the wise child who has learned all his lessons by heart, but the contrary child who raises questions about those lessons even as he mistakenly distances himself from the community in so doing. God begins by defining Himself as a strict disciplinarian, as a severe deliverer of tough love for His people, but discovers over and over again that tough love only leads to disarray and destruction rather than preservation and security. Reread the Adam and Eve story as an imaginative exercise with a very different frame.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman