Sex and the Single Man

We suspected it all along. But we are approaching certainty. Donald Trump will be impeached, even though he attacked Syria ostensibly to destroy some of the capacity of an evil regime which sacrifices its own nationals with chemical weapons in contravention of international treaties and the rules of war. Trump, reading from two prompters, gave his finest presidential speech ever in explaining what the U.S. and its allies were doing in their missile attack on Syria and why. Pat Robertson, the evangelical preacher, even interpreted Trump’s habit of sniffing while he reads a speech to be a sign that he was breathing in the breath of the Holy Spirit. However, the speech stank from insincerity. By sometime next year, if not earlier, Mike Pence will become president of the United States.

A reader of my blog sent me a very insightful article by Meghan O’Gieblyn in the May issue of Harpers Magazine called: “Exiled: Mike Pence and the evangelical fantasy of persecution.” The article not only paints a picture of the character of Pence’s Christian beliefs, but also provides insight into how he and other Christians could vote for and support Donald Trump no matter how much he lied, how much he fornicated with other women than his wife, how much he took to the media to berate and belittle his own appointees and government administrators. Mike Pence belongs to a branch of the Christian evangelical religion that takes its archetype for political involvement and activity from the story of Daniel and the emperor Cyrus.

In his 2016 book, God’s Chaos Candidate: Donald J. Trump and America’s Unraveling, Lance Wallau claimed that God spoke to him and revealed that candidate Trump was like the Persian King Cyrus cited in the Bible. Cyrus decreed that the Jews living in captivity in ancient Babylon could return to Israel and rebuild their temple. Voting for Trump entails a sacrifice to achieve a greater cause and objective.

First, the thesis presumes that Christians in America now live as aliens and a threatened minority in their own historic land. This is the same theses that Martin Luther King put forth in his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech fifty-five years ago on the Washington Mall on 28 August 1963: “the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.” This is how Evangelical Christians, and Lance Wallau in particular, currently portray the current plight of Evangelical Christians in America. They are living as a persecuted minority as exiles in their own land.

Second, they will be redeemed, not through good works and social justice, but by getting in bed with a pagan who will serve as God’s means to deliver them once again to the Promised Land and their rightful home. They will return from exile and once again build a commonwealth based on strict Christian (priestly Jewish) teachings (a kingdom that never existed in history as much as some Jews tried to create one). The rule of a new High Priest would esteem purity and ban homosexuality, drive strangers out of the land and revere ethnic homogeneity. The Black narrative is first appropriated and then applied to themselves in a competition of imagined victimhood.

Could anything be more miraculous than the pagan Donald Trump rescuing Mike Spence from political decline and obscurity following the farce of the anti-gay legislation he introduced in Indiana? Could anyone imagine anything more miraculous than Donald Trump no sooner – or even before he won the presidency – proceeding headstrong towards self-destruction? Yes. The story of Daniel in the Torah is interpreted to mean that, “God’s people can survive in exile—even under the fist of a despotic ruler—so long as one of their own tribe advocates on their behalf in the corridors of power.” One can have faith and serve Babylon at one and the same time. Because Babylon with a pagan, tenacious and willful ruler unintentionally will serve as a mechanism of return as Isaiah foretold (45:1).

א  כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה, לִמְשִׁיחוֹ לְכוֹרֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר-הֶחֱזַקְתִּי בִימִינוֹ לְרַד-לְפָנָיו גּוֹיִם, וּמָתְנֵי מְלָכִים, אֲפַתֵּחַ–לִפְתֹּחַ לְפָנָיו דְּלָתַיִם, וּשְׁעָרִים לֹא יִסָּגֵרוּ. 1 Thus saith the LORD to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him, and to loose the loins of kings; to open the doors before him, and that the gates may not be shut:
ב  אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ אֵלֵךְ, וַהֲדוּרִים אושר (אֲיַשֵּׁר); דַּלְתוֹת נְחוּשָׁה אֲשַׁבֵּר, וּבְרִיחֵי בַרְזֶל אֲגַדֵּעַ. 2 I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight; I will break in pieces the doors of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron;

Trump will be the wrecking ball to the spirit of political correctness and substitute religious correctness for Israel’s sake so that the nation can fulfill its divine assignment, and for America’s sake so that Christian nationalists can once again regain their proper place in the sun.

I had started to write this blog early Friday morning, but was sidetracked because of a request of one of my sons. I never got very far into it. On Friday evening when I was off to synagogue, at the corner of Nina and Bathurst Streets, I saw a vision. In the sky to the south at the bottom of the steep Bathurst Hill, there was a large hand in the sky. Beneath that sky, cars were driving towards the heavens and disappearing into the clouds. Of course, the huge hand in the sky was but a reflection in the misty late afternoon of the hand signal that warned pedestrians not to cross the street. The cars in the sky disappearing into the clouds were but reflections of the cars driving down the Bathurst Street hill. An unusual confluence of mist and air, and the sun remaining invisible, allowed what was on the ground to be reflected much larger than life in the sky. The heavens mirrored earth. It was an illusion.

Though this naturalistic explanation was correct, what I saw was a miracle nevertheless. It was a vision almost worthy of Daniel. God’s hand was so powerful that it could make cars and traffic disappear. Such is the power of God’s hand and His outstretched arm! Such is the willingness of humans to sacrifice their neighbours in the name of purification!

My theme in this series of blogs has been about etzem and how identity, or sameness, and independence can be reconciled. I wrote about Adam’s fantasy that woman was merely an extension and projection of man, woman more as possession than as objectification, though both misconceptions prove to be complementary. It is this tale of master and slave, of men as masters and women as their servants, that is even more fundamental than one ethnic group, one religious group or one race, subjecting another group to slavery.


כז  וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ:  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם.
27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.

Even in Genesis I, when God created man and woman, only man was made in the image of God. That is why in man’s dream, in Adam’s dream, woman is viewed as created, not this time as an image of himself, but as a physical extension and projection of himself. Only man in the image of God can say and it will be. Only man can name and classify and bring the categories of thought into being. Woman is simply made as a physical help meet of man – at least as told in the Biblical narrative of the faulty path of human illusions.

The biblical narrative begins, not with human independence, but interdependence, with man dependent on God and woman dependent on man. It is an asymmetrical interdependence. Man is beholden to God, not simply for his life, but for being created in the first place and for being given the position in turn of master over the physical universe. Man is the surrogate of God. Woman, on the other hand, is viewed by that man as simply his physical extension in the original doctrine of possessive individualism. But just as God is dependent on man for being recognized as the creator and master of the universe – animals and plants certainly cannot do that job – man is dependent on woman for serving his physical needs.

However, there was a fundamental difference between man and God epitomized by the two trees that God planted in Eden. One was the Tree of Life. God was eternal. Man was not. And man would not eat of the Tree of Life even though man deluded himself initially to believe that his destiny was to have eternal life.  A second tree was the tree of knowledge of good and evil, of moral discernment. Here, man had it over God. Because God was not a physical being. God did not have a sexual partner. Man, on the other hand, could know woman, could have sex with a woman and thereby discover the foundations of a moral universe. If God brought humans into the world in this archetypal mythical tale, man and woman would bring morality into the world. It was not sufficient to recognize the good, to wonder at the beauty of creation. It was necessary to understand evil as well and its source. As you will see, it is not sex.

How? Because the two trees, the tree of life and thee tree of knowledge of good and evil were also interdependent. Man was warned that if he ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, if man knew woman, if the two had sex, they would know that they were mortal and were not like God, would know that one day they would surely die and that they never would be able to eat of the tree of eternal life.

The story of the second creation of Eve, the creation of Eve in the imagination of the male, is about an Eve who is but a physical extension of man, an Eve who exists simply because man is lonely and, further, because the man that is lonely does not even recognize that he needs Eve as his companion and, further, that being alone is “not good.”

Woman is “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” And the two become one flesh in reality when they mate. But they do not, simply thereby, become partners in life.  For man does not see woman as his equal, does not see woman as an independent self-conscious being with whom he must establish and build a relationship. Look at how the mating game begins in Genesis III.

א  וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה, אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן. 1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman: ‘Yea, hath God said: Ye shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’
ב  וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה, אֶל-הַנָּחָשׁ:  מִפְּרִי עֵץ-הַגָּן, נֹאכֵל. 2 And the woman said unto the serpent: ‘Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat;
ג  וּמִפְּרִי הָעֵץ, אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ-הַגָּן–אָמַר אֱלֹהִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ, וְלֹא תִגְּעוּ בּוֹ:  פֶּן-תְּמֻתוּן. 3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.’
ד  וַיֹּאמֶר הַנָּחָשׁ, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה:  לֹא-מוֹת, תְּמֻתוּן. 4 And the serpent said unto the woman: ‘Ye shall not surely die;
ה  כִּי, יֹדֵעַ אֱלֹהִים, כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ, וְנִפְקְחוּ עֵינֵיכֶם; וִהְיִיתֶם, כֵּאלֹהִים, יֹדְעֵי, טוֹב וָרָע. 5 for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.’
ו  וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה-הוּא לָעֵינַיִם, וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל, וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ, וַתֹּאכַל; וַתִּתֵּן גַּם-לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ, וַיֹּאכַל. 6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.
ז  וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם; וַיִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה תְאֵנָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם חֲגֹרֹת. 7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles.

What do we know about the serpent? We know it stood erect. We know that the serpent was subtle and devious. In fact, the serpent is an outright liar for he describes sex as a divine experience when that is precisely what a Hebrew divinity can never experience. God did recognize what is good and not good (loneliness for man); God had not yet come to recognize what is evil.

The serpent insists that if Eve eats of the tree of knowledge she will know good and evil and that will be like being a divine being who knows good and bad, good and evil. We know that the serpent spoke to woman. We can surmise that when first mentioned, serpent is a euphemism among a host of euphemisms in the Bible. We may currently give a penis a proper name – Peter or Oscar– or call it a boner. The biblical writers were prone to use a wide variety of euphemisms to refer to a penis, such as “basar,” “flesh” in Exodus 28:42, the same word that is used in Genesis 2:23: “flesh of my flesh,” בָשָׂר מִבְּשָׂרִי. Woman then means bone of my bone, penis of my penis. Another euphemism for penis is erva עֶרְוָה or “nakedness,” as 3:7 above, עֵירֻמִּם.

Last night we went to hear The Hot Sardines at Koerner Hall, a terrific retro jazz band with superb musicians and even a tap dancer – see and hear them if they are in your neck of the woods – they play Vancouver at the Orpheum later this month and in Winnipeg in May – or if you go to New York, they perform at Joe’s pub. They put on a tremendous show. They are crisp and exacting musicians with a great horn and wood section. And they are funny in a sly and witty way, just as are some of the tunes they play from the days of dirty jazz in which all types of interactions with fruit were used to refer euphemistically to sex and passion.

Note the following about the biblical tale of the erect penis:

  1. Man objectifies his own penis and sees it as Other.
  2. That Other, unlike woman, is viewed as an entity with an independent being.
  3. That independent being, in contrast to the naïve Adam, obsessed with his naming ability and, thereby, bringing things into existence, is characterized by guile.
  4. Woman is seduced, not by a man, but by his penis, by woman discovering what a delight a penis is to the touch and the sight and the taking the penis in as food for the body and the spirit.
  5. Only in this way does Eve teach the blissfully unaware Adam, who does not even recognize Eve as an independent being but characterizes his penis as having independence from himself, that he too can take pleasure in his physical being.
  6. In discovering their nakedness, in discovering the penis, in discovering the wonders of sex, they are both ashamed.

Why do Adam and Eve feel shame? And what does sex and shame have to do with independence and autonomy?

To be continued.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Bone of my Bone

Yesterday I wrote about etzem suggesting both identity (sameness) and independence and asked how two such apparently opposite meanings of the same term could be reconciled. Earlier this month I had also written about salvation versus resurrection (wordpress 2018/04/07) These were the opening paragraphs of that blog:

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.

Yesterday, however, I wrote about Adam falling asleep in the Garden of Eden story and God removing one of his ribs to fashion a woman viewed by this archetypal male as simply an extension of his own body. In this story, Eve is created out of a living bone, not a dry, dead one. It is not a story of resurrection, but of material projection. Recall that in Genesis I, on the sixth day of creation, long before this night dream of the creation of woman, God had already created man and woman, though man alone was created in His image. This, contrary to most interpretations, is not a blessing but a curse.  For the Jewish God is a very unimaginative one. He has little sense of the music of the spheres and of artistry. He is a craftsman with an attention to detail and precision. He is a scientist, absolutely marvelous at bringing objects and things into existence.

Humans are an example. They are embodied creatures, fertile, capable of reproduction, but also of rule. For man was made in the image of God to rule over all created things. What is created is viewed as good (or bad) and not as beautiful or ugly. God cannot smell. God cannot taste. Everything has been made for utility. God can pronounce what He creates as good, but not as embodying the beautiful. The sun and moon are placed in the heavens to dominate, to separate light from darkness and allow consciousness and knowledge of the external world and its exploitation to take place. God is also a mad scientist who can give birth to a monster out of a desire to objectify Himself in the flesh. And then that creation blessed with a divine spirit will do what God does, blame others for all the problems that result rather than taking responsibility for His own mistakes.

How was that initial rule based on responsibility for the creation but irresponsibility for the management demonstrated? By giving man the power and the ability to engage in taxonomy, to use his brain to classify and categorize all things. Not to relate to them as things to touch and smell and wallow in their beauty. And not even to manage them properly. Man is given the power of naming, the same power God had but with one difference. God named, and the thing came into being. Man named what already existed and the thing came into being in thought, in consciousness. However, unlike God, images and fantasies came into being in and out of the human imagination.

Why did Adam, why did man need a helper? It was not to name things. He could do that on his own. It was for the same reason God created man and woman in the first place – to be His toadies. Man and woman were to be His surrogates in managing the material world. After all, God lacked a body. Man and woman were created in the image of God with the capacity to rule and administer. Man, however, right from the get-go, dreamed he was like God, that woman was created as his own projection, as an extension of his own flesh rather than as an independent being. For man, only God has independence. Only God has absolute autonomy. Embodied being entails dependence.

But as the stories unfold in both Genesis and Exodus, it becomes very clear that what man lacks most is a sense of independence and responsibility – for himself and for another. This is also true of God. God depends on man. God needs man to execute His will. Further, God is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. I shall be who I shall be. God is the god of self-revelation.

One reader of my blog informed me of Jerome M. Segal’s book, Joseph’s Bones. (I have not as yet obtained a copy let alone read it.) But my reader informed me that the book “ends with the burial of Joseph’s bones at Shechem. This action represents the ongoing wishes of the Israelites for a just God who will judge individuals instead of the collectivity. Joseph represents what Israelites want God to be: the One who knows us as individuals and the One who can forgive individuals. The Israelites brought two arks through the desert to Canaan. One was the Ark of God’s law and the other the ark containing the bones of the compassionate Joseph.” Therefore, I want to jump to Joseph’s bones to thrown light on the creation of Eve in Adam’s imagination as “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”

Why did Joseph exact an oath from the children of Israel that they would bring his bones up from Egypt? (Genesis 50:24-26) [I have drawn much of this material from my daughter, Rachel, and several of her lectures on Joseph’s bones, primarily her class on the nexus between homeland and exile, a lecture she delivered at Hebrew College this past Monday.] Why was it so important to bury Joseph’s bones in Shechem? And why is this an archetypal tale of redemption and the fulfilment of God’s promise to redeem Israel? What is wrong with the interpretation of Daniel’s vision of resurrection coming at the end of days as consisting of individual resurrection as promulgated by many rabbis, most Pharisees, about the messianic age during the late Second Temple period in opposition to the Sadducees? (Josephus, Antiquities xviii) A plain reading of the text suggests that the Joseph reburial narrative is a parable of the reuniting of the two kingdoms and the resurrection of Israel as a nation. (37:2-11)

“These bones are the whole House of Israel.” The dead bones represent the consciousness of Jews in the diaspora who had lost hope in Israel’s resurrection. Spiritual death is the loss of hope. These are not the bones of Daniel divided into those who lived just lives and those who did not, with resurrection reserved only for the just. Rather, a Jew is not simply an individual, but one deeply embedded in a family and a nation. In exile, as refugees, the spirit of a people lives to some degree in suspended animation. (Cf. Jon D. Levenson (2006) Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life)

Note that in Genesis Chapter 2, verse 22 about Eve as a projection of Adam, as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, there is no staging as in the resurrection where the bones are first covered with sinews and then flesh and then skin and finally they are infused with the breath of life. Eve is instantly created as a living being from a bone. It is a very different kind of parable, one of fantasy rather than hope. God created man and woman. They were equal except in one sense. Only man was made in the image of God. And that was not something good. For man, unlike woman, was prone to fantasize that he could be like God, that he could aspire as a narcissist and megalomaniac to envision himself as the ruler of all humanity as well as of all the rest of nature. Such a visions of rule began with a belief that woman was not an independent conscious being, but an extension of himself.

How do we know this vision of the bringing to life of woman is a male fantasy? It takes place when Adam is asleep. It runs contrary to a plausible tale told in the previous chapter that humans emerged from the brine of evolution together. Man is borne by a woman and is born from the womb of a woman; man suffers from womb envy. As in dreams, there is no staging; the events spring seemingly out of nowhere. Rule is envisioned as solitary rather than shared. Rule is envisioned as a projection of self rather than a responsibility assigned to humans as nations, as collectivities. It is a classical narcissist fantasy – the other is merely an extension and reflection of me.

But why bones? Why flesh of my flesh? Because the other then only has a material existence. Only the male is an embodied spirit. Adam in his fantasy world has pulled off a coup. Why? To get away from parental (and responsible) governance, only to become totally dependent on woman. He is someone who clings to his wife. In the quest for divine power, the male becomes a supine infantile creature. And the self is envisioned in terms of possessive individualism and a material existence where the woman is the objectification of a male fantasy. At the same time, underneath it all, that selfsame male reveals himself to be a clinging male totally dependent on the Other for recognition and acceptance. Beneath the boastfulness and the bravura one can only find a whimpering infant needing appreciation from the very same creature he views simply as an objectification.

In contrast, Joseph dies, period. His resurrection involves only reburial in the proper place for the birth and rebirth of a nation. Further, Joseph is the most feminized of all the male characters in the Torah. Whatever the necessity for a martial spirit in defence of the nation, whatever the need to engage in manipulation in the exercise of power, the spirit of the nation must be one of compassion, one of caring, one of attention and sensitivity to others. Further, to live on hope and realize aspirations, one must be able to interpret dreams, to distinguish fantasy from reality. Consciousness may entail naming and categorization, classification and objectification. But etzem is a product of the imagination.

It is on that psychological, social and political foundation that the spirit of a nation will emerge and develop. This is the base for conveying how identity, how sameness, can be reconciled with independence.

To be continued

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Master and Slave: Independence

Israel’s Independence Day starts next Wednesday evening at sundown and is celebrated on Thursday 19 April 2018, a shifting date on the English calendar, for the date is set in accordance with the Hebrew calendar on the 5th day of Iyar 5778. In Hebrew, it is called Yom Ha’atzmaut, יום העצמאות. Yom means day and ha’atzmaut means independence. If we want to understand what we are celebrating when we take joy in the festivities – whether Jew or gentile, whether Israeli or member of another nation – we must understand what independence means for a nation, and, before that, what it means for an individual.

A week from today in the evening, the holiday of Yom Hazikaron, יוֹם הַזִּכָּרוֹן, begins, that is the Memorial Day for soldiers who lost their lives in battle or otherwise in the defence of Israel and for those who have been victims of terrorism – Yom Hazikaron l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot Ha’eivah (יוֹם זִּכָּרוֹן לַחֲלָלֵי מַעֲרָכוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְנִפְגְעֵי פְּעוּלוֹת הָאֵיבָה).  It is a very solemn day.  For 24 hours, everything is closed; it feels like Yom Kippur. A siren sounds this evening Israeli time at 8:00 pm and all traffic stops for two minutes of silence. This is repeated on 18 April at 11:00 am Israeli time. The end of the siren wailing is followed by a memorial service and recitation of prayers at military cemeteries. If we want to understand what independence is, we must understand what sacrificing one’s life for a nation means.

Further, both holidays follow less than two weeks after Passover, Pesach, פֶּסַח, the week when Jews celebrate their exodus from slavery in Egypt and the quest for freedom. It is called the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the feast of Matzah, the festival of freedom from slavery. To understand the point of these two holidays next week, it helps to have a brief review of the holiday that just passed.

Passover is a celebration of God’s efforts to bring Jews forth from bondage into freedom, from sorrow and pain into joy and happiness. Likewise, next week we repeat and reinforce the experience over two days of going from mourning into festivity. As we celebrate Pesach to re-enact this redemption, this movement from slavery into freedom (Exodus 13:8), the moment must be re-experienced, must be repeated over and over. We must re-experience that journey. We must recognize that it is a spiritual and physical trip that we ourselves must make. We must recognize our personal redemption. We are obligated to see ourselves as if we left a state of bondage for freedom. (Deuteronomy 6:23)

What does it mean to experience being a slave in Egypt? One can think of it as simply physical slavery. Eritreans fleeing their oppressive country have often been enslaved by traffickers and held for ransom until they were redeemed. Slavery does mean enforced servitude. Freedom means being free of such external coercion. But that is not all it means. When a slave is in bondage to a master, he or she is not only forced to work for and supply the needs of the master, he or she must also recognize the master as his Lord and Saviour, he upon whom the preservation of one’s life depends. Further, he or she recognizes the master as his or her superior, and, therefore, himself or herself as his inferior.

This recognition is double-sided. Mastery supposedly defines an ideal. The slave is in bondage to a false idol, another human perceived as superior to oneself. ‘Freedom from’ will mean both freeing oneself from physical bondage, but also freeing oneself from the mental bondage branded into one’s soul so that one is conditioned for a long time to retain a slave mentality, to see oneself as dependent on another for one’s life and to perceive that other as the epitome of life.

That is NOT accomplished by following the guide of Yerachmiel Israel Isaac Danzigerof Alexander (Poland 1853-1910) who in the Yismach Yisrael Haggadah (p. 107a) interpreted the obligation to re-experience one’s freedom from slavery as a process of recognizing one’s “essence,” atzmo, citing Exodus 24:10 – “It was the very essence (etzem) of the heavens for purity.” To quote: “This is an allusion to the inner divine spark found in each of us. A person must strengthen this holy spark no matter how low a state he reaches. In Egypt, we were so deeply mired in impurity that the Prosecutor said ‘both the Israelites and the Egyptians worship idols.” If strengthening the “inner spark” sounds retro as well as new age, it does. I suggest that etzem has nothing to do with an inner spark, and nothing to do with a process of purification, though it certainly has to do with casting off idolatrous propensities.

Exodus 24:10 reads:


י  וַיִּרְאוּ, אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר.
10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.

The phrase the “like of the very heavens,” the translation of וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם

is interpreted by this commentator in a Platonic way, envisioning transforming and raising up an inner spark into a purified state akin to the heavens, a variation of realization of a pure pre-existing form. However, is we read the biblical text where etzem appears, independence as in Yom Ha’atzmaut, יום העצמאות, the reference is indeed to sameness, but to physical sameness.  Genesis 2:23 reads:

 
כג  וַיֹּאמֶר, הָאָדָם, זֹאת הַפַּעַם עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי, וּבָשָׂר מִבְּשָׂרִי; לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה, כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻקְחָה-זֹּאת. 23 And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’

Etzem of my etzem, bone of my bone, עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי

Genesis 2 follows the six days of the creation story with the seventh day of rest. The earth still did not have humans nor, for that matter, any vegetation or crops. For it had not rained. Then a mist went up from the earth to water the ground. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, breathed into his nostrils, and the man became a living soul, that is, a man of flesh and the breath, the spirit of life. There is no discussion of purity. There is no reference to an inner essence, a divine spark. The imagery is water, earth (flesh) and air and not fire. Then God planted the Garden of Eden and placed man in it to groom the trees and plants.

Three things then happen. God tells man that he is free, free to eat whatever he wants from the garden. With one exception: “of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat.” Why? Because if you eat of it, you will have knowledge of your certain and inevitable death. Second, God made birds and beasts. And Adam gave them their names – cows and goats. Third, Adam was put to sleep. Why? Because God saw that man needed a help meet. Not man. Adam did not even know he was lonely.  When Man was asleep, woman came into being for Adam. Woman for Adam is a projection of his unconscious. In Adam’s dream, the woman was an extension of himself, made from his own rib. It is then that man pronounces that woman is “now bone of my bone,” etzem of my etzem: עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי

If etzem means independence, but woman is here envisioned as simply a physical extension and projection of man, one might reasonably conclude that these are opposite states. To be merely viewed as a physical extension of another would appear to be the opposite of independence. How does this make any sense? Unless, of course, the tale is read ironically. Though the woman is perceived as an extension of man’s physical self, she in reality is the true expression of his real self. The real self is not a hidden spark within, but a real presence of another outside whose independence and otherness is not initially recognized. Man discovers his own independence by and through discovering the independence of another. Initially that independence is that of a woman.

One answer is that etzem means “essence,” the bone marrow of the matter, roughly, the heart of the matter, “the essential fact of the matter.” However, Exodus 12:51 reads:


נא  וַיְהִי, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:  הוֹצִיא יְהוָה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם–עַל-צִבְאֹתָם.  {פ}
51 And it came to pass the selfsame day that the LORD did bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts. {P}

The same day, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם

Like bone of my bone, the stress is on sameness, not difference, not autonomy, not independence. This is also true of Leviticus 23:14.


יד  וְלֶחֶם וְקָלִי וְכַרְמֶל לֹא תֹאכְלוּ, עַד-עֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה–עַד הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-קָרְבַּן אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:  חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם.  {ס}
14 And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor fresh ears, until this selfsame day, until ye have brought the offering of your God; it is a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. {S}

The sense is that of identity, as oneness with oneself, oneness with another, and oneness with the experience of escaping oppression. Again, in Leviticus 23:29-30 we once again find etzem translated as sameness.


כח  וְכָל-מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:  כִּי יוֹם כִּפֻּרִים, הוּא, לְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
28 And ye shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God.
כט  כִּי כָל-הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תְעֻנֶּה, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה–וְנִכְרְתָה, מֵעַמֶּיהָ. 29 For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from his people.

What is going on? How is repetition and sameness equated with independence and freedom? How is a woman projected as simply a physical extension of man connected to independence?

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman

A Proud Father and a Proud and Appreciative Canadian

What a weekend! On Friday evening I went to a concert rather than to synagogue. After about a twenty-year absence, Eric (my fourth child) returned to playing the trumpet in a newly formed orchestra, the Summerhill Community Orchestra. The opening number, Telemann’s “Trumpet Concerto,” was played by my son. He also conducted. I was bursting with pride. He was terrific. Another wonderful performance followed with Victoria Yeh on the violin playing “Romance for Violin.” Then Sarah John conducted Rossini’s rousing classic “Overture to the Barber of Seville.” The second half featured Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7.

What a great evening!

Saturday morning was spent initially in Torah study discussing slavery and freedom, about which I will write a separate blog, and Saturday afternoon visiting a close friend.  On Saturday evening, we went to another concert at Koerner Hall, primarily to hear David Buchbinder’s Odessa/Havana band, a fusion of Jewish and Cuban music. They were excellent as always. Buchbinder’s trumpet playing of this unique Afro-Cuban/Jewish/Jazz fusion gets better and better as do the original compositions. Hilario Durán, a Cuban-trained pianist, is absolutely brilliant. The accompanying players are all great: John Johnson on Reeds and Flute, Aleksander Gajic on the Violin, Justin Gray on Bass, Mark Kelso on Drums, Joaquín Núñez-Hidalgo on Congas and Percussion, and the vocalist Maryem Tollar.

But the hit of the evening for me, surprisingly, came in the first half when we heard Kuné (meaning “together”), Canada’s global orchestra formerly known as the New Canadian Global Music Orchestra celebrating the release of their debut album on Universal Music Canada. A year ago, Mervon Mehta, who runs the performance side of The Royal Conservatory of Music, initiated and created a new ensemble of musicians to celebrate Canada’s cultural diversity and pluralism. Howard Buchbinder was the artistic director. I expected an orchestra with outstanding musicians from around the world. I did not expect such fascinating and original music performed with such great artistry. I cannot recall when I have seen a pre-act get a standing ovation that forced the performers to come back on stage and play another number. I saw and listened to 13 virtuoso musicians, each brilliant in his or her own right.

Let me suggest a taste – though you should listen to the music; the CD, simply entitled Kuné, can be ordered online. The evening began with Canadian First Nation drumming, but quickly merged from that start into the violin and subsequent singing by Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk, a Canadian Métis. The Gypsy music evolved into jazz, and then, in a subsequent number, into Irish and Scottish reels from the Maritimes. The fusion was seamless, original and entrancing.

Demetrios Petsalakis, originally from Greece, played the Oud (he also played guitar) that, with the other instruments, emerged as an original jazz composition. One of the most lyrical as well as haunting pieces was performed by Padideh Ahrarnejad who arrived in Canada just over a year ago from Iran. She played the Tar and sang. And if you want to hear rhythm, you had to listen to the percussion and singing of Aline Morales of Brazil as well as the final number, after the standing ovation, led by a flautist, Lasso (Salif Sanou) from Burkina Faso, who played the talking drum in a thrilling unique composition. These were not soloists, though solos were played within each piece, but true fusion music which blended instruments, styles, musical history and motifs from all across the world.

Every single one of the musicians deserves their own accolades, including:
Sasha Boychouk (Ukraine): Woodwinds & Ethnic Ukrainian Flutes
Luis Deniz (Cuba): Saxophone
Anwar Khurshid (Pakistan): Sitar & vocals
Paco Luviano (Mexico): Acoustic & Electric Bass
Matías Recharte (Peru): Cajón, Drums & Percussion
Selcuk Suna (Turkey): Clarinet
Dorjee Tsering (Tibet): Dranyen, Flute, Piwang & Vocals.

I had been missing my movies. In the wee hours on Sunday, instead of writing a blog, I watched Denzel Washington on TV in the dystopian film, The Book of Eli by the Hughes Brothers. It was a classical Denzel performance with its hesitations, mannerisms, morose disposition and inward reflection, but this time with a very troubled but very dedicated and committed soul. This combined Christian revivalist and Wild West movie set in a destroyed wasteland of the future is at times fascinating and at other times simply boring and leaden with scenes too stretched out and infused with too much preaching and insufficient witnessing. Denzel is a mad preacher on route to save mankind by transporting the last remaining copy of the Bible to the West, but with his own indifference to the suffering of others. In the process of his walk across the continent, he comes face to face, not so much with his inner demons, as with himself as a sinner even though dedicated to his mission. A very interesting and disturbing film, but not a must see.

I then watched a ten-year-old film, Untraceable, more about the female FBI agent, Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane), set on capturing a serial killer, than the killer himself, the archetype of a sadistic psychopath, a callous loner with no or blunted emotions, exploiting, playing with and eventually destroying the life of another rooted in an impulse for revenge for a perceived injustice and with no ability to feel guilt or express remorse. The film has a unique and, for its time, prescient twist. The slow agonizing deaths are broadcast on social media to millions of viewers. It is an archetypal cop/thriller/horror film which is fast-paced and horrifying, if you like and appreciate the genre, but totally implausible if you examine the timetable of events with any close attention. I do not and did not understand why I watched it.

The third film I saw was both much more interesting and very understandable why I watched. One of my major interests is the ethics of bystanders, whether the Rwandan genocide or individual malfeasance and silence when witnessing an injustice or atrocity. That was the core focus of Barry Levinson’s HBO film Paterno in which Al Pacino, another great actor with an even broader reach than Denzel Washington, plays the celebrated coach, Joe Paterno, who, for over four decades, was a very celebrated and winning head football coach of the Nittany Lions at Penn State, but who is suddenly and unceremoniously fired by the trustees of the university, ostensibly for not adequately and appropriately dealing with the pedophilia, sexual molesting and perhaps male rape committed by one of his veteran assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky.

What did “JoePa” hear, when did he first hear it, what did he do, and how much attention and effort did he pay to the rumours and complaints about his assistant coach? The question of why is more muted in total disproportion to the noise and demonstrations by Penn State idolatrous fans, whose unexamined enthusiasm for Joe is also portrayed, perhaps at too great length. What started as a supposed report in 1999 turned into a media explosion twelve years later. Al Pacino is as mute as the 84-year-old ex-hero he plays, conveying his dealing with the scandal with a glance, a shrug, a sigh, a thrust forward of one stooped shoulder.

The question of Sandusky’s guilt, though there is some, but not much, doubt, is accepted as a premise. Sandusky is now serving a minimum of 30 years in prison. He will die there. He is a peripheral presence in the film. The reasons for Joe not reporting him slips out in installments over the course of the movie – distraction, presumption of innocence, friendship, disbelief, preoccupation with other matters, structural deficiencies in the university, inattention to a matter seen as of peripheral importance, the focus on winning rather than the well-being of the players – these and other reasons and excuses are put forth over the course of the movie. The current zeal for reporting predators just did not seem to exist. It was another era. Joe is a heroic remnant from an earlier age who could still insist, without any in-depth self-examination, that the events had “nothing to do with me.”

Joe is played with a sense of humanity before and in spite of the tragedy he faced. His extraordinary composure in dealing with the scandal even as it ate into his very sense of himself (he died just months after being fired), and his own fleeting doubts and questions as he urged the students to suppress their idolatry and get on with being excellent students, makes him both deserving of being admired but also makes the viewer more upset with his lack of insight. The film is a very empathetic portrayal of a bystander who had been an enormous success but ultimately failed the ethical test in the last twelve years of his life. In some sense, the failure is as gruesome as that of the prophet Eli played by Denzel Washington.

From yesterday’s morose morning, in the evening we went to the Hot Docs theatre to see the documentary on Itzhak Perlman, simply called Itzhak. He is both approachable and loveable, an honest but diplomatic commentator and a great and funny raconteur. The film is absolutely marvellous, a fly-on-the wall documentary of this extraordinary talent and his wife, Toby, full of life, humour and her own centre of will. The editing of Helen Yum is simply superb and deserving of an Oscar nomination. The film takes you on a roller coaster ride of a man so grounded yet so ambitious to reach and teach how to aspire for the heavens.

The film begins with Itzhak playing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the opening of one of his beloved baseball games and near the end there is a moving performance of the theme from Schindler’s List by John Williams. (Perlman played first violin in the orchestral score of the movie.) The film could not possibly include everything in this great man’s wonderful life, but I was secretly hoping, given my Canadian nationalism and pride, that the film would include a segment from his performance in Ottawa at the National Art Centre’s 150th year celebration of Canada’s birth when last September he played “a musical love letter to the movies,” a sort of reprieve and update of his 2006 Academic Awards performance.

If you want to hear great music, if you want to watch a courageous, extraordinarily talented but funny, down to earth and very humane individual, do not miss the film. The fact that the film is perforated with his extraordinary classical violin playing, and a few scenes in various genres other than classical music, is both inspiring and an aesthetic delight. Rarely do we find ethics and beauty so intricately intertwined. What an uplifting way to end the weekend!

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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

Eritrean and Sudanese Refugee Claimants in Israel

There are about 36,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugee claimants currently in Israel. Israel claims that the vast majority are illegal migrants or, as Prime Minister Netanyahu (Bibi) calls them, “infiltrators.” T’ruah, an Israeli human rights NGO, claims the reverse, that they have mostly fled oppression and forced military service (Eritrea) for a safe haven in Israel. Israel was one of the first countries to ratify the Refugee Convention in 1954 and, therefore, had agreed not to refoule refugees if they had a legitimate fear of persecution. To assess the application of this criterion, some background might be helpful.

In the early 2000s, Sudanese fled to Egypt as refugees. By 2005, 30,000 had registered for asylum status there, but there were tens of thousands more in the country who had not been registered. In November 2005, a Sudanese asylum sit-in crisis took place in which the majority of the 4,000 protesters were women and children. Over six weeks in a park near the Mohandessin mosque in Cairo, the participants in the sit-in grew to 4,000 just when Egypt had taken steps to deport 640 Sudanese “illegal migrants.” UNHCR offered to organize a voluntary repatriation to Sudan, given that the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Army had signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement on 9 January 2005.

However, UNHCR, which had suspended its asylum hearings after the peace agreement had been signed, was unsuccessful in mediating the dispute in which Sudanese refugee claimants were protesting the dire social and economic problems they faced in Egypt and the insecurity of their status. Overwhelmingly, the Sudanese were unwilling to return to Sudan given that they faced a worse and more dangerous situation there. Further, the agreement the year before (the so-called four freedoms agreement), guaranteeing Sudanese in Egypt freedom of movement, residence, work and property ownership, had never been implemented. The Sudanese were still treated as foreigners with no rights to stay.

The government turned on the refugees using water cannons and batons. On 30 December 2005, thousands of riot police attacked the refugees to end the protest in the camp and killed at least 20, though Boutros Deng claimed that 26 Sudanese were killed, including two women and seven children. Egyptian human rights and refugee organizations claimed the total was much higher and that over 100 were killed. Though no survey is available, most of the public seemed to support the police and called the Sudanese dirty, rowdy criminals and stealers of jobs.

The Eritreans had a slightly different history. They were not fleeing ethnic cleansing and possible genocide, as the Sudanese did from Darfur, but an extremely oppressive regime that made military service compulsory and indefinite following the 1998-2000 war with Ethiopia. Deserters were treated harshly and subjected to indefinite prison terms. Those who fled initially made their way to Sudan and then to Libya. In Libya, they were mistreated and enslaved. By 2006, they had shifted to Egypt, but given that they were subjected to the same conditions as the Sudanese, they and the Sudanese headed for Israel in the belief that this nearby democratic country would treat them better, especially since Jews had suffered so deeply and so many had been refugees.

Between 2008 and 2010, traffickers had taken control of the flow and enslaved or ransomed the “refugees.” In 2009, Israel created its own refugee determination system. Israel also closed its border. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel interviewed survivors among those enslaved by the traffickers and estimated that as many as 4,000 died between 2008 and 2012. However, getting past the traffickers did not end their quest to reach the Promised Land. For example, in October 2012 a group of Eritrean refugees with little food or water had been stranded at the border between Egypt and Israel for over a week.

However, 36,000 Eritreans and Sudanese managed to reach Israel. Contrary to some claims, there was no necessity that Egypt as the first country in which they arrived had the obligation to process them as refugee claimants or that Israel had the right to send them back to the country of first asylum to have the claims processed in Egypt. The first country rule is an EU edict and not part of international law.

Israel responded to the influx by building an impenetrable border fence and detention facilities. In processing the claims, only 4 Sudanese and 10 Eritreans were granted refugee status, or .01% of Eritrean claimants compared to a success rate in Canada of 85-90%. The Israeli government also initiated efforts to deport those that had arrived in Israel as “economic migrants” and “infiltrators.” In spite of the Israeli effort, more kept coming, but in significantly reduced numbers. Some moved on from Israel to other destinations. Nevertheless, by the end of 2017, Israel hosted a population of 40,000 Sudanese and Eritreans without access to health benefits or a legal right to work, though most were employed in the underground economy, mostly in hotels and restaurants. In 2016, the Israeli government introduced a 20% withholding tax on their wages.

This past November, Israel announced that it had arranged to relocate these “illegals” to an African nation widely rumoured to be Rwanda and perhaps Uganda. The internment camp at Holon would be closed. The government gave the “illegals” 90 days to leave voluntarily with a grant of $3,500 or face forceful deportation. A minority of Israelis reacted by initiating a sanctuary movement as well as one of civil disobedience and non-cooperation with Israeli expulsion efforts; a group of pilots announced that they would not fly the refugees back to Africa.

At the end of January 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Rwandan President Paul Kagame met in Davos. Purportedly, they finalized their agreement to secretly transfer thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers from Israel to Rwanda. Though some claimants took up the offer of a $3500 grant to help in relocation, most refused. When the Israeli-Rwandan deal became public this past week, Rwanda was embarrassed by the alleged agreement to receive the expelled refugee claimants in return for a reimbursement of resettlement costs. The country (and Uganda) denied that they had signed any such agreement.

In the midst of the past three months, Israeli courts entered the fray. In response to a case filed by the Tel Aviv University Clinic for Refugee Rights, a special Jerusalem appeals court for refugee issues ruled that flight from service in the Eritrean army was a justified ground for claiming refugee status even though British and Danish courts had ruled that it was not. Further, any argument that insisted that granting refugee status to so many Eritreans would threaten the Jewish character of Israel could not be used to make a refugee determination. A stop order was placed on the deportations. In response, the Israeli government requested, and was granted, an extension in the case of asylum seekers from Darfur and Nuba. The High Court of Justice endorsed granting male migrants of working age a “choice” of either deportation with a $3,500 grant or internment in Israel.

In the diaspora, many liberal Jews mobilized to help the refugee claimants working on two tracks – lobbying the Israeli government to drop the policy and negotiating with their own governments to at least take some of the refugees. The effort was successful in Canada when the private sector stood up to the plate to sponsor the refugees and the Canadian government, strongly influenced by a brief of a former Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler, agreed to allow 2,000 to be resettled in Canada in 2018. As a follow-up, in a totally surprising move, this past Monday a separate agreement was announced between the Israeli government and the UN wherein the UN would arrange for the resettlement of 16,250 refugee claimants to other countries over five years while Israel agreed to allow an equivalent number to remain with resident permits. Netanyahu said that he would now scrap the controversial plan to deport the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers given the unprecedented understanding with the UN.

Within a few hours, in the face of a backlash from his base, Netanyahu reversed course, first suspending the agreement and then cancelling it. Even more oddly, seemingly out of nowhere, Netanyahu blamed the NGO, New Israel Fund (NIF), for sabotaging the deal, but no explanation accompanied the charge. The following day, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in an absolutely unprecedented action in Israel, claimed that NIF had put pressure on Rwanda to withdraw from the deal, but offered no evidence. NIF insists that it has been totally transparent and never did what Bibi claimed. Netanyahu, however, promised that parliament would set up a committee to investigate the NIF and its involvement in sabotaging the deal.

The puzzlement is that this leaves Israel in a far worse position. First, Bibi’s attack on the NIF resulted in an enormous swelling of support for NIF and for the refugees. The support came both from Israel and abroad. It even came from south Tel Aviv that had been undergoing a process of gentrification over the last decade and from which area a delegation met Netanyahu on Tuesday. South Tel Aviv is the area where most of the “infiltrators” live because they have access to the bus station, social services set up by Israeli volunteers and companies seeking casual day labourers. With permanent status, the Eritreans and Sudanese would more likely disperse through the country.

The government’s black eye is even much darker. The Rwandan and Ugandan governments, embarrassed by the whole affair, announced that they had no signed deal with Israel. Further, in openly acknowledging that Israel could not sent the “infiltrators” back to their home countries, the government implicitly conceded that the Eritreans and Sudanese were refugees in some deep sense.

In the meanwhile, the debate continues in Israel with those opposed to the refugee claimants accusing them of being illegal migrant workers and infiltrators who, in Israel, undermine Israeli social life. The defenders of the claimants insist that the vast majority are fleeing oppression and, in Eritrea, endless forced military service. Quite aside from the debate over the refugee claims process, Israel introduced another dimension, its long continuing war with Arab states and the antipathy towards Israel of those states and members of the population. Israel claims the need both to preserve its Jewish character as well as preventing Muslims from entering Israel and undermining the ethnic balance. Tough measures towards asylum seekers (or infiltrators) are necessary, the government declared ignoring a long Jewish tradition, for many, the essence of the Jewish character, to helping those in need.

Netanyahu’s reputation has suffered even more than Israel’s. Yossi Verter wrote:

“In the face of all of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s past capitulations, it was the most disgraceful, the most transparent. In comparison to all his reversals, it was the quickest, the most humiliating. The man had already taught us a chapter on zigzags and back-and-forths – in the story of the Western Wall egalitarian prayer space and the metal detectors at the Temple Mount, for example – but this time he outdid himself, in both speed and flexibility. A contortionist could only dream of having such a liquid backbone.”

However, the result, though embarrassing to the government and especially Netanyahu that finds himself boxed in, still leaves the so-called illegals without security or a clear road to the future. One advance: Israel released the asylum seekers who were interned for refusing deportation to Rwanda.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Foxtrot and Contingency

Let me be perfectly clear. Samuel Maoz’ film Foxtrot, that won eight Ophirs in Israel, the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize in Venice and was a runner-up to the shortlisted nominations for the Academy Award for the best foreign film, is superb. I, however, do not recommend that you see it. The film is just too heart wrenching, just too painful to watch. When physical self-harm is used to inflict pain on oneself in order to distract from the far more ominous and inescapable emotional pain, then you get some idea of the depth and breadth of the pain aimed at the audience. We cannot feel the self-inflicted physical pain. Extraordinarily, that is a relief. For we cannot escape feeling the emotional pain.

And there were so many times I wanted to escape, to just get up and leave the theatre. Admittedly, the pain for me might have been doubled because I watched the film yesterday with my youngest son and the film is about the loss of a son. Admittedly, that pain might have been doubled again because of a trauma of death that my son went through that was not that dissimilar to the one in the movie. Nevertheless, when I awoke this morning after going to bed early because I had been so emotionally rung out, I still felt like a dishrag that had been wrung dry. I slept seven hours in total instead of my usual 4-5 hours.

I will tell you the opening of the first 60 seconds of the film, but no more. After a seemingly unrelated frame of a truck driving down a lonely and dusty road, an Israeli soldier appears at the door of an upper middle-class family in Tel Aviv. Daphna Feldmann (Sarah Adler), the mother of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), faints. Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) is stunned into silence. This is all in the first minute. Little is said. Little needs to be said. And the emotional impact simply grows from there. Reflecting and thinking about the film, rather than reliving it, is itself an escape.

What started as a dance to the syncopated ragtime music of composers and performers like Scott Joplin, the foxtrot was translated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers into a dance with elegance and fluidity in a 4/4 time signature rhythm. The foxtrot dance alternates between two rhythms – slow-slow-quick-quick and slow-quick-quick. The quick-quicks are reduced to punctuation marks in the movie.

Instead of a free-flowing rhythm, the foxtrot in the film is reduced to a stilted and rigid exercise of squares in which the dancer returns to the original point. According to Maoz, “We thus enter the Foxtrot dance of traumatic circle: no matter what you do, you always end up where you began.” However, instead of going around in circles, the movie actually travels in rigid and repetitive squares. And when illustrated in the film, instead of a close dance, the individual performer moves in isolation. Right, back, left, return. Yamina, sig, smola, shub. The movie moves in a straight line, yashar, yashar, only between the corner points of the square, each time after a radical ninety degree turn.

The term “foxtrot,” reduced to very selective essentials, is ironic. There is never a trot. And the movement is so sluggish as to be paralyzing. As we watch each parent separately from a bird’s eye view in the claustrophobic intimacy of a washroom in the beginning act, we suffer from vertigo, but not from movement, but from lives that literally have come to a dead stop even as their bodies painfully curl up in foetal positions.

The film has four acts, though the director insists that there are three. “The three-act structure enabled me to offer an emotional journey for my viewers: the first act should shock them, the second should hypnotize, and the third should be moving. Each sequence reflects, by using various cinematic tools, the character that stands in its center. The first act, featuring Michael, is sharp and concise—just like him. It consists of detached compositions. The third act is loose and warm, just like Dafna. It floats a few inches above the ground. The second act takes place in a surrealist outpost, occupied by four soldiers and an occasional wandering camel…This act is uniquely non-verbal (in) its wry sense of humor and surrealism.”

It is not as if there is no relief from the emotional pain of Act One. There is. The relief even includes some gentle humour in the second act as Maoz describes it. But the main relief in the film in that second act is boredom, the alternative enemy of human happiness to pain. We choose to be bored, even in the most boring context, precisely because we blame the boredom on externalities. We do not choose emotional pain. Further, boredom is painful in a very different way than emotional pain. For boredom messes with our heads, not our hearts. Boredom results from being disengaged from another (in a Freudian slip, I first typed “from amother”); emotional pain is a product of intimate engagement. We become bored when we are cut off from both internal and external stimuli. We experience the greatest emotional pain when internal and external stimuli combine to whack us in the solar plexus. With emotional pain, there is no one to blame. When people are bored, they always blame their surroundings rather than taking responsibility for their own circular obsession with being bored.

For the German 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, “the two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom.” Life is an oscillation between pain and boredom, between torment and repetitive actions without meaning, such as Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill daily only to see it roll down again just before he reaches the summit. Which is the worst hell? In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, to the degree we escape one, to that degree we are thrust into the arms of another.

However, Schopenhauer inverted the experience of each. Boredom is largely a product of external and objective conditions, but that eminent philosopher believed that boredom comes from the inside. Emotional pain is a product of the internal and subjective, but Schopenhauer attended only to physical pain and attributed it to be a product of poverty and the absence of external conditions that would have allowed us to thrive and prosper instead of feeling pain. The movie tells an opposite story to that of Schopenhauer, of inner emotional pain and external boredom.

But the main philosophical concept underlying the powerful impact of the film is contingency. Contingency has two very opposite meanings. It refers to what may happen. The movie is an exercise in imaginative possibility rather than a depiction of reality. The controversial scene which aroused the ire of Israeli politicians is not a depiction of how the IDF behaves, even though this is what some viewers and commentators thought, but an extension of circumstances to make what is possible plausible. As Maoz said in an interview, “This is not a film about the occupation or the Palestinians. It is a film about Israeli society. Second, a work of art should not aspire to imitate and recreate reality; it should interpret, illuminate, or unravel its hidden aspects. And this is exactly what Foxtrot is trying to achieve.”

The second very different meaning of contingency refers to something liable to happen rather than simply a mere logical possibility. If we take the film to be about contingency as a likely existential liability rather than a remote logical possibility, then from my knowledge of the ethics governing the Israeli army, what is depicted may be a logical possibility, but is also a calumny in portraying the IDF. As Maoz himself said, “I was doing something that seemed right and logical. I wanted to deal with the gap between the things we control and those that are beyond them.” He was not depicting an existential reality.

The second act is a stylized surreal portrayal, a depiction that attracted the wrath of some leftist Israeli politicians for that stylistic quality and the wrath of right wingers because of the content. In spite of the detailed and heightened reality of the first and third acts, the power of the film comes, not from its existential portrayal of reality in the first and third acts, but from the logical sense of inevitability.

For Immanuel Kant, teleology, the end purpose and meaning of everything, is regulative; it is not a depiction of actuality. It serves as a guide, not as a depiction. Hegel argued that teleology served as such a guide only because of an instinct built into reason itself to bring everything together into an actual whole that appeared to constitute reality. That propensity would end up leading people to believe that they understood the absolute truth of the present when a belief in the absolute was precisely what had to be disaggregated in each age. The great philosophic irony is that most commentators took Hegel to be an advocate for the absolute and not someone who described its all-embracing and claustrophobic but inevitable propensity to characterize life that way.

Is the film about self-knowledge, the whole humanistic effort since the Enlightenment and even the Socratic foundations of philosophy? Or is the film a critique of the militarism that infects Israeli society? Is it a fearless autopsy on human emotions in general and Israelis in particular much more than a social critique? Certainly, Maoz’s first film, Lebanon, belonged to the latter category. “Lebanon, was based on my experience as a 20-year-old gunner in one of the first Israeli tanks to enter Lebanon in the 1982 Lebanon War. That film helped me to try and understand what it means to kill other human beings, as I did during my military service at the IDF. I had no other choice, and yet the notion of taking lives is an excruciating burden I am forced to live with. Foxtrot was born from a different place. After Lebanon was released in 2009, I was overwhelmed by the stories other Israelis with PTSD have told me. I realized I was not alone. There are endless variations of my story and the kind of pain and guilt it germinates.”

Maoz actually offers the same answer in the film. The son of the parents, Jonathan, is a sketch artist. The last drawing he made hangs on their wall. Each parent offers an opposite Freudian interpretation of the drawing. Neither takes it to be about reality. Is the irony that they presume a deep psychological meaning – however opposite for each – when there is none, or is the irony that most members of the audience will believe the parents missed the point – that this was an actual portrayal of a horrific reality?  The audience is then invited to laugh at the parents rather than examine why they do this instead and what such an interpretation says about themselves. Why do commentators and members of the audience tend to interpret the sketch to be about the son’s effort to externalize his trauma rather than a surrealist element in the movie intended to provoke self-examination? Is the weakness of the film, and its limited box office appeal, a result of this ambiguity, when there is one intended outcome but the opposite actual one?

I do not take the film to be primarily a critique of the IDF and the extent to which it does or even could engage in literal corrupt cover-ups that infects and makes complicit the lives of individual soldiers in the IDF. I do not interpret the film, as the Israeli Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, did, as offering a “searing, for her, unjustified, critique of Israeli militarized culture.” As Maoz declared, “If you choose to see this narrow picture (that of Regev), it will be your choice. But I will do anything to force you to see the bigger picture.” Does the film attempt to provide an understanding of military reality or is it primarily an exposure of inner psychological reality? The overwhelming focus of the film on the parents and their internal emotional pain suggests that the latter is the case, that the film is primarily about self-understanding and is not a critique of society, however depressing the external narrative concerning the perpetual nature of the external conflict.

Maoz said, “I needed to find a dance that you can do in many versions, but you will always end at the same starting point. This is the dance of our society. The leadership has to save us from the loop of the foxtrot dance, but they’re doing the opposite.” However, he also said that, given the Holocaust, “we couldn’t complain, we had to repress, and we became a second generation of traumatized victims.” Sometimes he seems to describe the film as a social critique, at other times as a socio-psychological inquiry into the Israeli and human soul. Is the terrible scene in the film’s second act and depicted in the drawing an ewar, death,ffort to describe political reality or is it a metaphor, as Maoz said, “a microcosm of our apathetic and anxious society”? “For me (Maoz), this was the climax of an unhealthy situation that gets more and more crooked. We prefer to bury the victims rather than asking ourselves penetrating questions.”