The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac (Akedah Genesis 22:1-24)

by

Howard Adelman

It is not enough that the parsha of the past week (Vayera Genesis 18-22) is an amalgam of so many short stories – the strangers who visit Abraham and ask after his wife; the story of Sodom and Gomorrah; the miraculous birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Sarah and Ishmael as well as the concluding binding of Isaac – but the key and final one has so many different inconsistent interpretations at the same time as it is generally regarded as the central and most important narrative of Judaism. Let me begin with a simplistic classification of various interpretations, simplistic because it emphasizes differences more than overlaps, and simplistic because it ignores the many variations within each type. Keep in mind that hermeneutics cannot be separated from the interpretations and lessons for life implied in the different interpretations.

I Ethical Superiority

One of the strongest traditions of interpretation is to regard the story as a tale of the superiority of Israelites compared to the surrounding tribes and the superiority of the Jewish God to competitors such as Baal. Non-Israelites sacrificed children to their god; the Hebrews did not. This story is the instantiation of that ethic. Abraham’s action is one of obedience, but not of blind obedience. The tension exists between two imperatives at work in Abraham – the imperative of faith and the imperative of love for his son. Man’s inner conscience is reconciled with God’s will where a balance is struck between the divine and the human.

However, the emphasis is on God’s original intention rather than on an evolving ethos in which humans play a major role. Obedience is favoured because ritual observance is at risk if the priority is not given to obedience. themselves embody the tension rather than overcoming them. Though that law is fallible, it is still rooted in divine authority that demands respect even as one debates the meaning and implications.

II Evolutionary Ethics

The above position is criticized for stressing the binding of Isaac as akin to the binding of all Jews to follow traditional Halakhah. This evolutionary ethical school tends to emphasize reason over obedience and takes ritualist observance off its lofty pedestal for a number of reasons. In the contemporary world, for most Jews observance and adherence to Jewish values are weakened rather than strengthened by emphasizing strict obedience. Further, norms have different roles and interpretations in different historical and cultural contexts. They are justified by a multiplicity of values and adherence requires an act of balancing rather than repression. Further, as historical relics, they do not in the end represent original law but an accumulation of which much may be detritus.

The ancient Israelites engaged in child sacrifice. Many of the biblically mandated laws reflect the social values of the time. The issue is not Israelite superiority at the time, but the revelation of a divine direction over time as we morally intuit or use reason in interpreting Torah to discover our moral compass and comprehend the divine will. In that context, the story reflects an internal tension among the Hebrews between values that condoned child sacrifice and values that viewed child sacrifice as immoral. The lesson is not one of obedience through which one can discover God’s will, but the question and inquiry about that will as discovered through the interpretation of the narrative. In asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, what does God want of Abraham?

Thus, the tension in the story is between the antiquarian notion of absolute obedience, even in following an authoritative command that is clearly intuited as wrong, and the emerging ethos of mercy, charity and justice. The Akedah does not endorse blind obedience but insisted that obedience had to be balanced with mercy and a sense of justice. In the first version above of the tension, that of ethical superiority, obedience emerges on top. In the second version, the vote is cast in favour of human choice and sense of ethical responsibility. Thus, in both I and II, there is a partnership of man and God. In the second, the Torah is dynamic and allows for understanding and comprehending how rationality and faith can be reconciled, but in favour of reason. In the first, there is also not an either/or but a both/and wherein obedience has the upper hand.

III Evolutionary Mysticism

Evolutionary mysticism offers a radical contrast of the above two positions which view Abraham as an agent who can run on two tracks – express absolute service to God’s commands and act to balance a call for absolute obedience with an ethic of mercy and justice. Evolutionary mystical interpretations of the story offer a totally contrasting cosmology rooted in Neoplatonism and the fundamental structure of most eastern religions. A mainstream of this Jewish mysticism can be found in Hasidism and those followers of Kaballah who see the Hebrew alphabet as the key to unlocking the mysteries of Torah.

An enlightenment modern orthodox interpretation, as in the example of I above, holds that God, and the norms God bequeaths to the Israelites through the law, through Halakha, are expressions of God’s power. God demands absolute obedience even at the risk of violence and bloodshed. God is all powerful and wholly other. In that view, Abraham, in complying with God’s commands, gave testimony to such a faith even in the most excruciating case possible, a willingness to kill his one son delivered to him by a miracle in Sarah’s old age. Normal human sympathies stand at odds to obedience. Abraham demonstrates his faith through obedience and the divine reveals Himself to be a God of mercy and justice, staying Abraham’s hand.

In contrast, version II suggests that Halakha (and Torah) is sometimes immoral and that it is the responsibility of humans through their actions and interpretations of God’s will to put in place a higher morality that is part of God’s intention, if not of his apparent convictions at one point in history. The emphasis is on God’s self-revelation over time. Halakha can be immoral when it complies with a predominant morality and ethos of the time. It is the duty of humans to look into the pattern of revelation and intuit or discern God’s intention. The position, in lacking a transcendent moral compass, risks interpreting what ought to be by what is.

Evolutionary mystical interpretations of the Akeda story takes no such risk, not by expressing the absolute transcendence of God to the natural world, as in modern orthodoxy, or interpreting history as the dialectical realization of the tension between the two in favour of the emergence of a higher morality, but through a religion that unites the natural and the transcendent by making the latter fully immanent in this world in a religion of interiority as Peter Singer characterizes all mystical religious expressions. Religion is not about confrontation. Religion is not about reconciliation. Religion is about the process of harmonizing the human and the divine which are never really at odds, for the goal is facilitating the dissolution of the self in the oneness of God.

Thus, Judaism is not a story of the war between God and Baal, nor the story of how a tribe which, on the popular level, shared in the practices of Baal overcame those practices to achieve a higher ethical order, but a tale of the unity of the natural and the divine, a unity in difference, a world which in all its expressions are projections of one divine being that allows the isolated self to be absorbed in a greater unity.

In the writings of Milt Markewitz or Ken Hoffman (http://natureslanguage.com/stories/7-the-binding-of-isaac), Abraham travelled from Kadish to Shir as primarily a time of interior reflection and transformation more that a physical movement towards the mountain on which he would bind Isaac and offer his son as a sacrifice to God. The Hebrew language, and Hebrew letters more particularly, express the revelation of the one divine cosmic force that allows for rebirth in a transformed self that now enjoys a oneness with God. In the story of the binding of Isaac, the confrontational character of Abraham’s relationship with God is finally overcome. “abc

Without getting into the details and the structure of the mode of Kabbalistic interpretation, and without tasking the reader with any effort to make the interpretation clear, but to get the flavour of the interpretation, a few quotes convey the cosmological order and this hermeneutical method shown by “the Dallet in the word Kadish, and …the Vav in the word Shir,” the latter an expression of the cosmic force that facilitates a new birth, the coming into being of a new person. Instead of the divine and the human existing in tension, the story is a tale of their combination, of their merger. “This famous Biblical story is generally understood to be about G*d asking Abraham, Isaac’s father, to sacrifice Isaac. The name of this Torah portion is Aiqidat and when we look at the Hebrew spelling, there is both the recurring pattern and insight into the essence of the story…The two Cosmological forces Tav—birth, and Qof–the lifedeath-life cycle, combine to create Archetypal birth–Dallet, from which Existential possibility–Ayn, and life-death-life—Yod, emerge. Clearly, we have a story about birth, driven by cosmological forces, and full of life and possibilities.” In this interpretation, Abraham is in constant communion with God through nature.

“Revelation was facilitated by our Hebrew language, in which each character is a sacred geometry of sound and shape—a symbiotic energy with every other character. The language kept us deeply connected to place both locally and globally, as well as to time—past, present and future—from which emerged the ethics of how we must live each day. It was this language that informed us of our cosmology, and our responsibility to maintain the balance and harmony with which we are blessed.” “Hebrew is no longer a shamanic language–the characters exist as letters but their energy and meaning has been lost. Also, our oral tradition has been largely replaced with the written word. Without the language and the conversations, we’ve lost the capacity for deep understanding. You read the Torah as if you know it is Truth, but the Truth has been obscured by written words that lack energy, and, paradoxically, an ambiguity that is necessary if our stories are to retain their essence.”

A story which appears to be about a father commanded by God to kill his son is really a story about revelation, a successful test of adversity overcome to ensure perpetuation.

IV Pietism: The Story as a Conundrum of Faith

In this version, God is inscrutable. Why would He order his singular acolyte to sacrifice his beloved son who is born only through the grace of God rather than any natural pattern? Abraham obeys without challenge or question. The narrative is the ultimate expression of piety. As in the mystical version, a personal transformation takes place. There is a spiritual rebirth and renewal. But it rests not in the mystical meaning of the language of the story, but in solid everyday practices of piety and devotion, an emphasis which emerges from the tradition of the Lutheran pietism of Sören Kierkegaard who was brought up in a Moravian household that resisted the imposition of “new” catechisms and hymns that were more in tune with the times and spoke to how people behaved in ordinary life. For Kierkegaard, religion was not a mechanism for being uplifted, but a means to challenge one’s complacency and become aware of the extraordinary demands God presents to humans.

First, there is a revolt against any of the various forms of intellectual understanding of the story, whether via a mystic understanding of the secrets of the Hebrew language and its letters, an ethical comprehension of an unveiling of higher norms in history or traditional rabbinic commentaries on text that reconcile the ethical and the divine which openly stand in tension. In the existential pietism of Kierkegaard, the emphasis is on faith versus reason. What God has asked Abraham to do is absolutely unreasonable. So why in Abraham’s evident willingness to kill his own son is Abraham treated as a great prophet and closer to God than anyone except Jesus?

As in the mystical interpretation of the tale, in Kierkegaard there is an emphasis on inwardness, but not an inwardness that leads to a reunion with an all-encompassing divine cosmic force, but an inwardness expressed in decisions and actions. Abraham is not engaged in a mystical exercise. He decides to do what God tells him to do. He collects the wood. He musters his servants. He travels for three days. But in the process, he experiences not a lifting of the self into a transcendent sphere, but an immersion into the angst of the human-all-too-human. Kierkegaard in his midrash reimagines the utter despair of Abraham caught between his absolute faith in God and his total devotion of and love for his son.

True and deep religion is not reconcilable with reason but rather challenges reason’s claim on absolute authority. God is not a god of reason but a god that demands a commitment of faith by those who worship at God’s feet. The issue was not adapting the church to conform to the conventional, but challenging believers to understand the profundity and the terror of what was being asked of them.

In that sense, the Abraham of Fear and Trembling is the archetypal religious figure. Abraham is a “knight of faith,” not because he challenges the predominant ethos of Baal at the time, not because he serves as a step in the emergence of a higher ethos, not because his trip is a mystical much more than a physical one in which he is transformed and allowed to become one with the divine, but one who recognizes that what God has asked him to do is totally unethical. The test of faith is whether one is willing to obey God even when one knows that the commandment goes against all common sense, all decency and is even a betrayal of the covenant God once made with Abraham. The story is one of a teleological suspension of the ethical as Abraham absolutely submits to God’s will which is not only unreasonable but insists that reason itself must be set aside if one’s faith is being tested.

What is a contemporary Jew to make of such a schism between the realm of faith and the realm of reason and ethics? More specifically, what is a Jew to do with Kierkegaard’s portrayal of Isaac as one who does not accept his father’s behaviour but is more than bewildered? Isaac cringes. Isaac begs for his life to be spared. Isaac appeals to the memories of the joys they had together. Abraham both consoled his son and admonished him. And Isaac could not understand his father’s decisions and actions.

Isaac is portrayed as the snivelling, cowardly and conniving Jew who will use anything to save his own life and can never understand his father. And Abraham acts (it is a performance) like a wild rogue and sacrifices his son’s belief in him so that Isaac can retain his faith in God. Jews are descended of this failure to take the leap of faith by Isaac that Abraham took.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz ignored this pietist depiction of Jewish failure to accept a God who would sacrifice his only son so that humans can be saved. Leibowitz ignored the barely latent antisemitism of the interpretation. In Leibowitz’s existentialist re-interpretation of Kierkegaard’s version, unlike previously, Abraham was silenced when ordered to sacrifice his own son. Abraham does not confront God for His contradictory behaviour and the apparent emptiness of his promises. Leibowitz offers a Jewish version of unconditional faith not bound by accepted moral norms.

In contrast, and in the name of one version of evolutionary ethics, David Hartman accepted this existentialist interpretation of the tale, but challenged the binding of Isaac as the archetypal core of religious life in which Jewish survival depended upon surrender and total obedience to God’s will requiring the suspension of one’s reason and one’s ethical convictions. Instead, the archetypal story is that of Sodom and Gomorrah where Abraham challenges God with a call of the ethical. Abraham in obeying God’s crazy command is a madman who is unable to question or challenge God; he is not an exemplar of faith and courage.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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Circumcision, Zionism and a Global Legal Order

Circumcision, Zionism and a Global Legal Order

by

Howard Adelman

We are into anniversaries – the 50th year since the Argentinian Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevara, was captured in Bolivia and the signing of The Outer Space Treaty bringing modern law of the open seas into space law. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, but also the Bolshevik Revolution and the defeat of German troops by the British in the Battle of Broodseinde signally the eventual defeat of Germany. It is the 150th anniversary since Charles Darwin published his theory of natural selection in On the Origin of the Species, and since Canada was created as a country. Finally, this is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing or gluing his 95 theses on a church door signalling the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

But what did we study in our Torah study group last week – God’s covenant of the promised land with Abraham and the circumcision of Abraham and his entourage as a sign of that covenant. (Genesis 17: 1-14, the ending of the parsha, Lech-Lecha – see below) This week – Vayeira, Genesis 18-22 – begins with the controversy over who were the three individuals who appeared at the opening of Abraham’s tent and asked about the well-being of his wife, Sarah.

Strangely, all of the above events are connected. Let me begin with the most absurd claim, that the ritual of Jewish circumcision had any relationship to the above momentous historical events. In the Torah, circumcision is not recorded as an act of health to reduce the chances of venereal diseases and of AIDS and, in modern parlance, to ensure the survival of the fittest. Although Talmudists depict the act as removing a defect and the ritual an act of human intervention to advance the cause of perfection, circumcision is much more significant as a sign.

From the ancient Hellenistic-Roman world, when circumcision was regarded as a barbarous act, to the modern world when circumcision is seen to conflict with a reverence for “the natural” and inflicting pain on a child regarded as an abuse of rights, circumcision was connected with misanthropy. In response, circumcision has been defended by Jews as an improvement over a natural defect that, without correction, led to disease and sometimes even death. The link to a deficiency is reinforced when Moses referred to his stutter as “having uncircumcised lips.”

However, Ezekiel viewed circumcision, not as a minor flaw to correct an imperfection, but as a major transformation. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26) He was not talking about cleaning out the coronary arteries, performing a valve replacement or even using surgery to correct a thickening of the walls of the heart in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, but a transplant operation wherein one obtains a new heart. Circumcision is a sign of a covenant between God and his people that will give them a new spirit. Circumcision is not, as it was for Philo, the excision of an unwanted and even evil presence, literally a catharsis, an excision of desire and vanity, but a process of being reborn with a new name and a new mission. Possessing a foreskin is not a mark of Cain; it is not a defilement. However, its removal is an opportunity.

Christians took the revolutionary transformational rather than reform version of circumcision a step further. One did not even have to imprint the revolution in one’s flesh, for faith in Jesus alone would bring about the transformation. One merely needed to surrender oneself to Christ. As Paul said, the “true” Israelites are “not children of the flesh…but the children of the promise.” What does such a debate have to do with the Cuban revolution and with Outer Space as a realm for the whole human race and not just for the powerful? What does it have to do with the Bolshevik Revolution, the British defeat of Germany in WWI and the instantiation of Zionism into international law with the Balfour declaration? More significantly, what does it have to do with Darwin’s theory of natural selection and with Martin Luther?

The Darwinian connection, ironically, is the easiest to answer, though only in a simplified form; natural selection is the scientific inversion of the theological doctrine of divine election. Circumcision certainly has a great deal to do with election and promise. For God promises Abraham, of which circumcision is a sign, two things – that he will be the forefather of many nations and that his direct descendants, the Israelites, will be a nation that will possess the land of Canaan. Christian Zionists, who preceded Jewish Zionists, married the two tracks of the Abraham covenant by viewing their own nation in the Enlightenment world as one of many nations chosen to fulfill the covenant, but that the Jews had a unique role for they had to be restored to their land for the covenant for all nations to be fulfilled. For some Christians, this also meant that all Jews had to be converted to a belief in Christ in order to bring about the Second Coming. For other Christians, these millenarian beliefs were independent and not linked to restorationism.

When I was entering my teens, there was a storefront just north of Bloor Street on Markham Street in the City of Toronto that offered an outreach to Jews. I recall distinctly going into their small office and receiving a nickel (5 cents) if I promised to read the pamphlet they handed me. Much later in my life, I would host a television program for twelve years on a Christian evangelical station which, contrary to widespread belief in the Jewish community, did not expect or push Jewish conversion to Christianity, or even expect that mass Jewish conversion to happen as a precursor to the Second Coming, but instead believed in restorationism, in a resurrected Israel as the precursor to a resurrected Jesus. Further, the term Israel was also detached from its specific association with the Jewish people and linked to a self-definition of one’s own nation as one also descended spiritually from Abraham.

Between these two periods, in 1980 I undertook an investigation of the source of the promise of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1979 to move the Canadian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a promise that turned into a fiasco. My link began with a meeting in early spring of 1979 convened by the Canadian Jewish lobby group to solicit the advice of Irving Abella, Harry Crowe and myself, about whether the Canadian organization advancing the cause of Israel in Canada should act on Prime Minster Begin’s request that Canadian Jews lobby the Canadian government to make such a move. The three of us thought it was a bad idea, very unlikely to happen and likely would result in a terrible backlash.

In the 1979 Canadian election, the Tories adopted such a program and the Jewish lobby was riven with suspicion and divisions over whether the professionals in the Jewish organization had betrayed the board of directors by advancing such an effort even though the board had deliberately not adopted such a program. I knew the executive had not been responsible. But then why did the Tories adopt the platform? When I was in Israel that winter, I heard a bizarre explanation. Before the election, Joe Clark and his wife, Maureen McTeer, in the company of friends, a Jewish couple without a close connection to the organized Jewish community or Zionism, had visited Israel and Jordan. They were feted in Israel. While in Jordan, the king had made them wait for two hours before granting them an audience. Maureen was particularly stirred up by this insult that so contrasted with the way they had been treated in Israel; she pushed Joe to adopt the policy of Canada moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

I thought the Israeli explanation was far-fetched at the very least and ill-fitted my knowledge of the extraordinary norms of hospitality of Arabs in general and of the royal household in Jordan more particularly. In any case, how could such an intemperate fit, itself incredible, result in the Tories adopting the decision? When I returned, I determined to research the issue and publish my findings – which I did. The results of the scholarship had virtually no impact on the widespread belief in the Jewish community that the Tories had been influenced by some of the Jewish community’s professional staff, in spite of an absence of any authorization to lobby for such a move, and by the goal of winning ridings in which Jews were a significant presence.

The truth was both more mundane and far more fascinating. A 5-person Tory policy committee dominated by Christian Zionists and led by Lowell Murray, a policy advisor to Joe Clark, (Murray was named a senator after Joe Clark took power on 4 June 1979) had met prior to the election campaign and adopted as part of the Tory program the promise to move the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem. Thus, the Canadian Conservative policy in 1979 had a kinship with the Balfour declaration and the efforts of David Lloyd George to implement what he had learned in Sunday school.

This interpretation of the significance of Britain’s imminent defeat of Germany, creating political space for the realization of restorationism, was deeply entrenched in British history, not simply in the Christian Zionist writings of the Earl of Shaftesbury, but in the theology of John Calvin versus that of Martin Luther. Both Calvin and Luther were “literalists” opposed to the manifold treatment of the biblical texts via metaphor, allegory (as in preterism, the belief that prophecies were merely allegories for actual historical events that had already taken place) and analogy. Both believed in the necessity of a Jewish mass conversion preceding the Second Coming. However, Marin Luther became enraged by Jewish resistance and became openly and strongly anti-Semitic. Calvin never abandoned his belief in Jewish restoration.

In America, Calvinism became associated with an obsession with God’s chosen people, a national belief in American exceptionalism and the singular mission of the American nation as well as the Protestant ethic and a reverence for individualism. It was also rooted in hermeneutics. John Winthrop in his well-known “City upon a hill” speech in 1630 as the Puritan Governor of Massachusetts described the Puritans in America as persecuted refugees who had inherited a special covenant with God and a special mission in history. This Christian Zionism was also put forth by John Cotton and his disciple, Increase Mather, who became president of Harvard.

When did the Jewish return to Palestine, restorationism, get divorced from the belief in mass Jewish conversion as a prerequisite for the Second Coming, with millenarian hopes? I believe it came about by the creation of what my colleague, Sanford Levinson, depicted as the Constitutional Faith that underpins the American view of the world and their place in it. For unlike Winthrop, who resisted the expansion of civil and political rights and refused to codify the laws governing the colony, the Constitutional Faith emerged as a belief in a civic religion rooted in the rule of law that can be established without any requisite preconditions, least among them, mass conversion of the Jews. It was this civic religion that painted King George III as the anti-Christ and provided the theological foundation for the Revolutionary War even though Cromwell a century earlier had believed in restorationism and had allowed the Jews to once again reside in Britain. Bringing freedom and democracy to the world had been adopted as the American vision.

However, Christian Zionism, globalization and the rights of free passage across the seas and through space had even earlier roots in Hugo Grotius’ On the Law of War and PeaceDe Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres as long as one does not rely on Louise Loomis’ 1949 translation which leaves out most of the Jewish references. Grotius was a seventeenth century Dutch Arminian. He read Hebrew and Jewish exegetes rather than relying on the Latin text of the Bible. He was a follower of the Dutch Reformed theologian, Jacobus Arminus, who grew up immersed in Calvinist theology but, along with his Remonstrant colleagues, emphasized election and the role of grace in freeing men as well as the freedom of the individual to receive or deny that grace. They believed in biblical scriptural interpretation as the mode of determining who can be saved. Grotius as a Remonstrant opposed the Calvinism of the Gomarists.

Grotius was a nationalist who opposed Spanish domination, but a nationalist who believed that nations could live in peace and prosperity if they all abided by a universal law binding all humanity. Hence, the Just Theory of War. He, along with Thomas Goodwin and John Wycliffe, viewed the Jewish restoration to their covenantal land as a sine qua non for the full flowering of international law.

Grotius, along with John Owen and Joseph Mede, Oliver Cromwell and John Milton, were restorationists rather than revolutionaries, and realists rather than millenarists. America, as its national belief system evolved, had a special mission. Under Abraham Lincoln, Americans fought a war for the universal rights of man rather that the particularist rights of slave holders. When Abraham Lincoln met the Canadian, Henry Wentworth Monk, in 1863, they discussed the unique role of each of their nations, one in gestation and the other engaged in a bitter fight between twins.

Lincoln had joked about his Jewish podiatrist who had been the source of his ability to stand without pain on his own two feet and joined with Monk in lauding a new moral order, with Monk stressing the prerequisite condition of restoring Jews to their own land in Palestine which, for Monk, was a precondition for Christ’s second advent. Lincoln, though he admired Monk, signed the Emancipation Proclamation and expressed sympathy for the ideal of restoring the Jews to Palestine, but was never allowed time to implement that dream. In light of the controversies this past week over John Kelly’s remarks on the secessionist, General Robert E. Lee, and the issue of compromise or no compromise with advocates of slavery, Monk took up both positions and impossibly urged compromise on secession, but only if the South agreed to free its slaves and abolish slavery.

Monk advocated a world government based in Jerusalem and globalization rooted in the age of railways and steamships, telegraphs and newspapers. Unlike Hugo Grotius, who died as a result of the injuries and ill heath resulting from his shipwreck, Monk was restored to health in spite of coming close to death in the wreck of his ship off the cost of Massachusetts. He survived for several decades living on his family farm in the Ottawa Valley and promoting not only restoration of the Jews to Palestine, but the creation of an international court to ensure world peace, a vision adopted by the Conservative leader, George Moffat, and eventually developed by the Dutch heirs of Hugo Grotius that led to the founding of the international court in The Hague.

Thus are great international innovations and nationalist visions a by-product of debates over circumcision.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Redemption

Redemption

by

Howard Adelman

In the days leading up to the High Holy Days in Judaism, Rabbi Splansky last evening ran a seminar to discuss the Um’taneh Tokef, the central poem in the High Holy Days liturgy that begins, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water…” By way of introduction, Yael began with a short story called, “The Tale of Rabbi Amnon” taken from the 1966 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Shai Agnon, from his Days of Awe.

Agnon in “The Tale of Rabbi Amnon” claims to have found a manuscript by Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Mainz who in turn claimed to have discovered how Rabbi Amnon of Mainz composed this liturgical poem, a claim as fictional as Agnon’s tale for its core is found in the much earlier Cairo Geniza. Rabbi Amnon is introduced in superlatives — great, rich, of good family, handsome, and, to top it off, “well-formed.” Thus, the loss of his extremities will be even a greater loss. Though the story reads like a horror tale, anyone familiar with the efforts of forced conversion of Jews by Christians in the Middle Ages will find that, in its details, Shai Agnon’s story resonates with actual historical truth.

The Archbishop of Regensburg, along with the lords of the realm, demanded that Rabbi Amnon convert to Christianity. Under constant pressure, Rabbi Amnon finally conceded that he needed three days to reflect on the matter and take the proposal under advisement. Why did he say this? To buy time. And that was his sin, which he quickly recognized. The issue was not his fear of what might happen to him if he failed to take the demand of the Archbishop seriously. His sin, according to the story, was conceding that he had to think about it when, according to his Jewish faith, there was nothing to think about.

For Jews lived in awe of a “living God.” Christians worshipped at the feet of a god who had died and been resurrected as a sacrifice for human sins. Having asked for time to think about the choice was to admit there was possibly a real choice and that, in itself, was not a matter of making room for reason for his faith, but an act undermining his faith altogether.

He stopped eating and drinking. He became dreadfully sick. Like Job, he refused consolation. “‘I shall go down to the grave mourning, because of what I have said.’ And he wept and was sad of heart.” When the archbishop summoned him on the third day, Rabbi Amnon refused to go. The archbishop sent a force that compelled Amnon to appear before him. In answer to the question about an explanation for his non-appearance, Amnon did not begin with the discussion of his failure, but with his punishment. “Let the tongue that spoke and lied to you be cut out.”

However, the archbishop imposed his own punishment, for the sin was not in what Amnon had agreed to, but in Amnon failing to come before him. So instead of lopping off his tongue, Amnon’s feet were severed. And then each finger in turn. Before having each chopped off, Amnon was given a chance to repent. At each point that he refused, another finger was severed. Amnon’s dismembered but still living body was sent home on a shield with his severed members at his side.

As the Days of Awe approached, Rabbi Amnon asked his relatives to carry him exactly in the state that he had been returned to his family and laid beside the reader reciting the High Holy Day prayers. The climax came when the reader came to the Kedushah, the prayer sanctifying God. Amnon sanctified God’s name then and there, sanctified the Day of Awe then and there, by dying and, in dying that way, offering testimony for the truth of God’s sovereignty, for the sake of God’s unity – in contrast to the Christian theology of the Trinity – to honour God as Judge, to honour history as the ultimate arbiter.

And what rose up from the dying rabbi? Not the resurrection of the rabbi’s body, but the ascent of Rabbi’s severed feet and fingers. Why feet and hands? To justify the verdict. To demonstrate that “the seal of every man’s hand” is on the verdict of history. It is in this sense, that his fate was decreed — not foretold — on Rosh Hashanah. That is how Rabbi Amnon expressed “the powerful sanctity of the day.”

How and why does this tale express the meaning of the Um’taneh Tokef, the powerful poem at the centre of the High Holy Days liturgy?

First, it is irrelevant whether this story was historically true and whether a Rabbi Amnon had ever lived and been martyred in this way, or, alternatively, whether the story is apocryphal and a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz never existed. In the latter version, Amnon is an anagram, a rearrangement of the letters of the Hebrew, “Ne’eMaN” meaning faithful. Amnon does not ask on his deathbed why God has forsaken him, but expresses, to the fullest extent possible, his faith in a “living God,” a god that lived in him when he was alive. Why hands? Why feet? Because they had been severed from his body yet he was still alive. He still lived to give testimony to his faith. Even laying on the shield on the bima beside the reader on Rosh Hashanah, he could give testimony to his faith. That faith determined what it meant to lead a Jewish life, what it meant to express the sanctity of the day, what it meant to pass on the memory of an incident, whether historically true or apocryphal. Further, Rabbi Amnon was not alone with that responsibility, for everyone’s hands contributed to seal Rabbi Amnon’s fate. In turn, it was Rabbi Amnon who was atoning, not only for his own error, but for everyone’s, including the hands of the legal and religious authorities who had severed his limbs.

Did Rabbi Amnon live ever after in heaven after he vanished from the earth?  There is no such suggestion in the story. Rather it is the story itself that, re-told, testifies to God’s goodness. Rabbi Amnon lives on in the story. Rabbi Amnon lives on in the tongue the Archbishop decided not to sever.

The fuller meaning of the tale comes forth when it is juxtaposed with the Um’taneh Tokef part of the High Holy Day liturgy chanted when the Torah ark is open in words allegedly composed by Rabbi Amnon himself which I have appended. Note the essence of the tale. Amnon was a handsome and rich “well-formed” man. He enjoyed a tremendous reputation for his good works and his inspiring words. But, in his own light, he sinned. He said he would think about the proposal of the archbishop asking him to consider conversion. The sin was a sin of speech and not deeds. Like Job’s, the punishment seemed totally disproportionate to the presumed sin.

But the story is not about punishment. It is about redemption, that even the life of a good, of a rich, of an honourable and handsome man can culminate in error, however slight, and that error must be corrected even at the cost of one’s own life. The awe and frightening quality of the High Holy Days is not contained in the ghoulish severing of the rabbi’s extremities, but in the slip of even considering the renunciation of the living God in favour of the worship of a god who died and was resurrected. No, not even actually considering. Merely making a statement to buy time signaling that such a consideration might be possible.

How is the redemption manifest? By exalting God as the one true sovereign and, by logical implication, insisting that neither the lords of the realm nor the highest spiritual authority of Christianity in that realm could dint that divine sovereignty even by making one accede even possibly to reconsidering one’s faith in a living God. How is the kindness of God’s sovereign authority exalted? By being firmed up with “kindness,” with deeds that testify to History, of the living God of revelation, not men, as the embodiment of Truth and Goodness. Time will tell. History will judge, attest and give witness. History will set the seal about one’s fate. History will remember what has been forgotten.

In our remembrance of Rabbi Amnon’s story, in our retelling that story, even if apocryphal, we give witness to that which exemplifies Truth and Goodness. Most importantly, each person’s signature, however faint, will, in the end, sign off on the Book of Remembrance so that the thin and still voice of one who went before will still be heard. God is not heard in the mighty winds of nature of Hurricane Irma that split mountains and shattered bricks, nor in the water that both rained down and rose up in the surge that followed that wind, nor in the Mexican earthquake that shattered the lives of so many, and not even in the devastating fires raging in Alberta and British Columbia.  Rather, the angels stand in awe of the “soft thin murmuring voice” amidst all that calamity.

This interpretation turns the polarization and dichotomy between those who are righteous and those who are not into a spectrum. The righteous may be immediately inscribed in the Book of Life, the very wicked relegated to the ashbin of the revelation of the living God, but we all die in the end. Everyone, no matter how unworthy, contributes his or her signature, no matter how faint, to that book.

Why then will angels be seized with fear and trembling? Not because they witness calamities, not because they witness atrocities, not because they watch extremities being cut off, but because these messengers of the unfolding of time remain in awe of humans made of flesh and blood who in their lives can and do contribute or detract from the cumulative truth and goodness that is the expression of the living God of revelation. Even such a great one as Rabbi Amnon will not be guiltless in the eyes of judgement.

That History is rewritten each and every year, not just for the year that passed, but for all of history, for the awe-inspiring profundity of creation itself comes up again before a tribunal of judgement and everyone’s fate, NOT his or her final determination in life, but the value of everyone’s contribution to revelation will be weighed and re-assessed and re-inscribed or inscribed for the first time in the Book of Chronicles. The greatest fear is that one’s name will be blotted out for all eternity, some immediately for their loathsome and foul sins will be so heinous. Though we are all born of dust and to dust we must return, we are obliged to drink from the well of goodness.

What is written on Rosh Hashanah is sealed on Yom Kippur for another year, who shall rest and who shall still wander, and who shall be redeemed through repentance, prayer and charity, through rescuing the sheep lost and scattered by calamities either natural or human on days of cloud and gloom. For all, whether the wicked or the righteous, die. That is why each human is “a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust and a fleeting dream.” Job’s life was but wind, his days a breath.

לשׁנה טוֹבה תּכּתב (Leshana tovah tikatev); “May you be inscribed for a good year.”

Appendix

Um’taneh Tokef

“Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates. You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Remembrances — it will read itself — and each person’s signature is there. And the great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin voice will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them — and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!’ — for even they are not guiltless in Your eyes in judgment.”

“All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep.[24]Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed — how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval [25] and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severity of the Decree.”

“For Your Name signifies Your praise: hard to anger and easy to appease, for You do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from his way and live. Until the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately. It is true that You are their Creator and You know their inclination, for they are flesh and blood. A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”

The Irrepressible and Irresponsible Donald Trump – Part II

The Irrepressible and Irresponsible Donald Trump – Part II

 

by

Howard Adelman

There is truth and there are lies. The first represents reality. The second deforms it. There are many kinds of lies. There are visual lies created by the selection and juxtaposition of images; the visual lie is also provided by the omission of other images. There are rhetorical lies, lies that result by the choice of words, by the way words are brought together, by the words omitted and by the way an argument is made. There are behavioural lies, lies conveyed by body movements and by actions, by policies and by plans. Finally, unlike these previously ambiguous lies that require dissection to reveal the distortions, there are simply outright lies, lies that are bare-faced and bald-faced, that are simply naked and carry no ambiguity whatsoever. The latter are usually brazen, bold, brash and blatant. They lack a trace of concealment. They are undisguised and unabashed.

In his response to the story of the Charlottesville torch march by the alt-right and in its aftermath, Trump told all four types of lies.

I begin with the visual that was so important in grasping the truth about Charlottesville. If you go to youtube, you can see multiple versions of the visuals of what happened at Charlottesville. Thanks to the prevalence of camera phones, if one goes through many of the postings, one can obtain a clear sense of what went on during the torch parade on Friday evening and on the Saturday following. Or one can look at a composite film made up of those images. A greater truth can even be obtained when the composite, when the scissors-and-paste effort to reveal the truth, juxtaposes those images with images from the past – from what Trump has said in the past and from films of fascists in the thirties, both real and fictional. I commend the following one to you. It is powerful and frightening.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1_wfS1LGig

But films misrepresent because they are clearly an artifice. They are a selection of images. Even when they reveal a greater truth, as I believe the one that I have pointed out does, they select, they juxtapose and they omit. This is what makes them so powerful; they are pointed. The video above omits any images of violence by the alt-left. It also omits the video images of the candlelight vigil and the over one thousand students and faculty at the University of Virginia singing those memorable songs of the protest movement in the sixties. For those images, one has to scroll through many of the videos posted on youtube. Thus, in the most powerful way of revealing the truth, through what one sees and hears, and if you were actually there, what you smelled and the fear you felt in your belly, these films, and even the compilations based on them, cannot offer a comprehensive and coherent view of the truth, but only a perspective on and the closest correspondence with that truth.

In the effort to get to a more comprehensive truth, a shift to rhetoric is required. This does not exclude the visual. It does require juxtaposition on a different level to a visually edited compilation, the extraction from what was said by Donald Trump on Tuesday that obliterated his conciliatory and wooden performance before the teleprompter on Monday. On Tuesday, DT doubled down and went back to the rhetoric of insisting on violence on both sides (a correct observation in itself if one goes carefully through the images), but implies proportionality, implies equivalence when there was none either in intent, quantity, quality or consequence, let alone in the justification accorded that violence by the proponents and users of that violence.

Let me begin with the easiest rhetorical device – repetition – one used so frequently by Donald Trump. On Tuesday, he repeated fifteen times – fifteen times – that he knew the facts and we listeners and viewers, and the media reporting about him, did not.

“Before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.”

“You don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts.”

“It takes a little while to get the facts.”

“You still don’t know the facts.”

“And it’s a very, very important process to me and it’s an important statement. So I don’t want to go quickly, and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts.”

“I like to be correct. I want the facts.”

“Before I make a statement, I need the facts.”

“But unlike you, and unlike the media – before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.”

“I had to see the facts, unlike a lot of reporters, unlike a lot of reporters.”

“I didn’t know David Duke was there. I wanted to see the facts, and the facts, as they started coming out, were very well stated.”

“I couldn’t have made it sooner because I didn’t know all of the facts.”

“Frankly, people still don’t know all of the facts. It was very important –“

“Excuse me, excuse me. It was very important to me to get the facts out, and correctly.”

“I want to make a statement with knowledge, I wanted to know the facts. Okay.”

“What about the fact they [the alt-left] came charging, that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs?”

What we have learned from Donald Trump is Trump’s Law. The more he repeats himself, the greater the lie. DT is and has proven himself to be a serial liar. The more he insists that he, and virtually only he, knows the real truth, the more you can bet that this lie will be a whopper.

One merely has to go through the assertions he made in these series of repeated claims to be Moses and that he and he alone has an exclusive access to revelation and an exclusive ability to reveal facts and the truth to reveal the misrepresentation. One repeated theme: “Before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.” Are you kidding! DT is notorious for pronouncing the truth long before he has or could have access to the facts. The instances are so many that what he says has to be ranked as indeed a bald-faced lie. He does not check the facts. His beliefs and ideas determine the facts, not what he sees or hears.

Is this an expression of delusion or a lie? Is he simply saying what he believes to be true or is there some degree of deliberation to misrepresent behind the statement? That is the ambiguity. For there is virtually a unanimous consensus, even among many supporters, that Trump maintains this idiosyncratic belief that he is a man who is not only committed to getting at the truth by getting the facts first, a claim totally contradicted by his record of lying. But is he delusional? Is he mentally ill? Or is there a possibility that he both believes that about himself and is conscious that he misrepresents what is generally accepted as real, namely that DT is a deliberate liar. I have concluded that his own self-admissions, his own exercises in advertisements for himself, indicate the latter to be the case. He states what he knows is not true because he believes he is the creator of reality.

It was DT on Saturday, who without any analysis, without the time to engage in inquiry, claimed that there were good and bad people on both sides, totally contradicting his claim that he does not make judgments until he has the facts. In explaining why he was doubling down on his initial claim that both sides were equally violent, he insisted that getting at the facts takes time. But he did not take any time to make the initial claim on Saturday that he then insisted was the real truth on Tuesday.

DT claimed that “you” – the reporters, the viewers of that unscripted press conference – do not know the facts. How could he possibly make such a claim – not simply that some may not have access to all the facts – but that universally everyone there, and, presumably everyone watching and listening, do not know the facts. He would have to analyze what each of us knows and does not know and parse that with analysis. Later he modified the claim to refer to “most reporters,” a claim that in itself contradicted his earlier universal claim and proved that he knew that universal claim was false, as well as a later claim that the facts were well known. However, consistency is not Donald’s forte. DT notoriously does not examine, does not analyze. The claim is both self-contradictory about patience and pattern, that on its surface it had to be a false claim to knowledge which he did not and could not have had.

DT claimed that he did not know that David Duke was at the torch-light parade. One could only recall that during the presidential race he claimed not to have known David Duke, that he had never met him and knew nothing about him when there are extant videotapes from years earlier when he was explaining why he would not accept the nomination of the Reform Party – because he did not want to be a member of a party to which David Duke, the former Grand Vizier of the Ku Klux Klan, belonged.  He did know who David Duke was when he claimed to know nothing about him. And if he was now claiming not to know that David Duke was at the rally, and was one of the chief organizers, then this man who claimed to want to know the facts before he made a pronouncement was displaying his ignorance for all to see. The chief policy maker, who had an obligation to know those facts, a fact easily ascertained by going to the website of the “Unite the Right” movement, supposedly did not know this.

Further, if the facts as they came out, presumably with respect to David Duke, “were very well stated,” how could DT claim that most reporters did not know the facts?

What about DT’s claim that the alt-left, swinging clubs, charged the parade of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klu Klus Klanners – or, as he preferred to depict it, the majority of peaceful paraders who were there simply to protest against the dismantling of the Robert E. Lee statue in what was formerly called Lee Park? DT was correct. Members of the alt-left were present, did wield clubs, did attack racist demonstraters. They even attacked one white bearded older man carrying a confederate flag, surrounded him and beat him.

Representatives of Antifa – short for anti-fascist – and some of the members of Black Lives Matter, did use force as can be seen if you scan the videos. Further, they used more than clubs. They used mace; in the now famous VICE video, Christopher Cantwell, can be seen pouring water over his face while claiming he was attacked with mace twice. Some members of the alt-left threw bottles of urine and other despicable material at the representatives of the extreme right. They engaged in fisticuffs.

All true. But also true and omitted by DT was that the protest against the “Unite the Right” demonstration was organized by clergy and others who opposed violence, but were in no position to keep out violent extremists from the so-called left. The racist paraders included men armed with automatic weapons who brandished them; one showed his automatic rifle, his reserve rifle in a case, his Glock automatic pistol in a front holster, his other pistol stuck in his back belt, his gun strapped to his ankle and, to top it off, his knife. The protesters against them did not have any guns as far as anyone could tell.

There was no equivalence in numbers. There was no equivalence in organization. There was no equivalence in arms. There was certainly no equivalence in proportions. And there was no equivalence in intentions. The alt-right had organized their torch-lit parade to call for a white ethnic state without Blacks, Jews or minorities. Anyone who marched alongside claiming to be simply protesting against the plan to remove the Robert E. Lee statue had to be naïve or contaminated, for what “good” person, as DT depicted the majority of those in the parade, would march alongside neo-Nazis chanting, “The Jews will not replace us,” and “Blood and Soil,” the basic slogan of the Nazi movement in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. If there were any non-racists in that parade, they could neither be good nor simply or primarily focused on the Lee statue. The Robert E. Lee status was a symbol. The alt-right offered a clear expression of why this statue should be dismantled. or moved.

Irresponsible Trump – Part I

Irresponsible Trump – Part I

by

Howard Adelman

Donald Trump praised the extreme right-wing blogger, Mike Cernovich, who labeled DT’s own security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, as a puppet of George Soros who in turn allegedly owed his allegiance to the Rothschilds. No wonder that the violent demonstrators in Charlottesville Virginia in turn openly insisted that they were there in support of Donald Trump and what he stood for. So why did Donald Trump take two days to read from a teleprompter the following?

“Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our creator, we are equal under the law, and we are equal under our Constitution. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.

We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry, and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans.”

However, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood, fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro, there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”

No wonder that many remained dissatisfied with DT’s clarification, and correctly so as we saw with extreme clarity yesterday. First, the statement was greeted as too little and much too late. Second, it appeared only to be the result of DT feeling cornered, given the widespread criticism from his own party. Third, though he had promised to hold one of the rarest events in his presidency, a press conference – a promise which he eventually kept yesterday – he did not keep his promise the previous day. Fourth his statement was read and, to many, came across as disingenuous because it lacked the personal voice and conviction he conveyed when he condemned Mexican illegals as rapists and Muslims as terrorists and that was part of yesterday’s rant which took back everything he read the previous day and went back to equating the thugs who, DT claimed, were mixed in with the good people protesting the taking down of the statue, with violent protesters on the other side.

Fifth, he did not include the “alt-right” in the groups he explicitly mentioned; yesterday he pointedly demanded that a reporter define the alt-right – a phrase he deliberately refused to use, but, as I indicated in my previous blog, the white supremacist, Richard Spencer coined and defined in terms of racism. Sixth, instead of highlighting the neo-fascist and racial issue, in his five-minute speech, he made his anti-racist comments as a footnote to the success of his economic policies (without, of course, noting that the success was the continuation of the upward curve of the Obama administration or acknowledging that the news was not all positive, and without DT noting that he was using the same evidential sources that he once condemned as phony.)

But, sixth, Trump only presented a very partial truth as he does on just about everything. The Dow Jones industrial average passed the 22,000 mark for the first time, possibly partly related to Trump’s initiatives in deregulation. Unemployment fell from 4.8% when Obama left office, to 4.3%, and is threatening to close in on Bill Clinton’s record of 3.9% unemployment. But wages and GDP growth both remain flat, though DT, against common practice, rounded up the GDP rate upwards. Disparities continue to grow and the labour force participation rate has actually fallen. If DT is not lying about the economy, he still repeats his habit of ignoring evidence that fails to support a claim he is making.

Seventh, DT did the typical blaming, condemning the media for fake news in its coverage of the Charlottesville violence: “Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied … truly bad people!” Eighth, when Ken Frazier, an African-American and CEO of Merck Pharma, dissociated from Trump’s failure to condemn the racists by resigning from the President’s Manufacturing Council (“America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal.”) Trump, instead of trying to empathize and understand and holding an open hand for Frazier to return, instead of being penitent and seek to heal the wounds he had opened, instead of being contrite, he was hostile and turned on Frazier and bitterly tweeted, “he will have more time to LOWER DRUG PRICES.” (In a second tweet, he said, “Merck Pharma is a leader in higher & higher drug prices while at the same time taking jobs out of the U.S.”) So why had he appointed him the Manufacturing Council? Why did he not rebuke the two, and, subsequently, five white members who resigned following these rebukes and following rather than preceding his effort to correct the record?

Ninth, Trump never apologized (but he never does) for his initial failure to condemn the neo-Nazis; Trump does not do atonement. Instead of bending on his knees for forgiveness, Trump boasts. Tenth, he announced no new actions to gather intelligence on the alt-right and to prepare for government intervention and prevention. Finally, he did not announce that he would fire policy adviser, Stephen Miller, and especially chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who once headed Breitbart News which allowed the alt-right a voice.

The Trump failure to vocalize his condemnation of white supremacists, the small vocal and demented faction of a larger though minority part of racist America, stood out more boldly because of what other members of his team stated. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that the alt-right attack on counter-protesters fit the Justice Department’s definition of “domestic terrorism,” even though he had instructed his department to investigate, not the alt-right, but American universities for discriminating against white applicants. Sessions is now investigating the Charlottesville violence. If the violence entailed the use of weapons, including the car, to deliberately hurt the counter-protesters, then a charge of domestic terrorism might be appropriate.

In contrast to DT, Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado repudiated the white supremacists: “We don’t want them in our base, they shouldn’t be in a base, we shouldn’t call them part of a base.” Gardner urged DT to call this white supremacism “evil” with the same kind of conviction that DT used in “naming terrorism around the globe as evil.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), with a moral clarity that Trump clearly had not displayed, said, “My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.” Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee condemned the torch-bearing and gun-toting and the 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. of Maumee, Ohio driving a Dodge Challenger, in imitation of radical Islamicism, into civilians. “The person who drove the car is a murderer when he ran over and killed 32-year-old Heather D. Heyer and injured 19 others. “That is simple murder. There is nothing you can do besides condemn that action. That is not politics, that is not America. That is evil, sinful, disgusting, behavior.” And DT.’s own daughter, Ivanka Trump, after the violence immediately and clearly stated, “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazis.” As a convert to Judaism, she possibly was particularly incensed at the Jew-filled hate speech directed at Charlottesville’s Jewish mayor, Mike Signer and on display at the torch-lit neo-fascist march on this past Friday evening in Charlottesville.

What would she have thought if she had tuned into the news coverage by the VICE reporter embedded within the alt-right? What would she have said or even thought if she watched the torch bearers repeatedly chant, “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi phrase, “Blood and Soil” with absolutely no evidence of “good people amongst them simply there to protest taking down the Lee statue. What would she have thoughts if she had been with the Jewish congregants who fretted through the shabat service in Charlottesville as “Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, ‘There’s the synagogue!’ followed by chants of ‘Sieg Heil’ and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols… Soon, we learned that Nazi websites had posted a call to burn our synagogue… but we had already deemed such an attack within the realm of possibilities, taking the precautionary step of removing our Torahs, including a Holocaust scroll, from the premises.”

America in 2017!

Inconceivable only two years ago, and even in the 1930s, white supremacists without hoods and sheets foment race conflict and congregate in a small American college town in Virginia to spew their hatred. Did DT with his personal hate speech, with his anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican rhetoric, with his reluctance to condemn white supremacists except when forced into a corner, create the atmosphere that emboldened these white supremacists? Is DT reverting to his insistence of executing the five innocent young Blacks falsely accused of raping a white woman. He had served as the voice of the birther movement, insisting that Barack Obama was not born in America. All of this helped prepare the ground for the emergence of white supremacism into the light of day?

Perhaps what disturbs me most was not how Donald Trump responded, but how some anti-liberal Jews dealt with the issue. One of the men I have esteemed for years, a Holocaust survivor, emailed me just after I left for Israel and which I read on my return: “Trump certainly is a better friend to Israel than Obama who while President visited every country in The Middle East except Israel. Thank god for TRUMP.” Would he say the same after Charlottesville?

On the other hand, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that “once again, hate has killed.” He issued a statement: “The vile presence and rhetoric of the neo-Nazis who marched this weekend in Charlottesville is a reminder of the ever-present need for people of good will to stand strong, to speak loudly against hate, and act both to delegitimize those who spread such messages and to mitigate the harm done to the commonweal of our nation and to those that are the targets of hate messages.” While commending the opening of DT’s 12th of August statement, he said that we (speaking for the Reform movement) are deeply troubled by the moral equivalence evident in President Trump’s statement. If our leaders cannot name the culprits, then America will fail to stop it.” However, hate may motivate but an action is only criminal when the intention was to harm a specific group as defined in law.

Monuments and Media Matter

Monuments and Media Matter

by

Howard Adelman

On Saturday evening, I was returning from the Arts and Crafts Fair in the Sultan’s Pool opposite the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem and flipping channels on the TV set. I was startled to come across Donald Trump on an Israeli news show. He was calling for unity and condemning hate and violence in America. I had no idea about the context since I had not followed North American news since I left Canada just over a week ago. My response was: was that really Trump? Has he changed? DT condemned hate and violence! Even though the condemnation seemed to be simply a rote display, this seemed to be a new Trump for me, ignorant as I was of the frame for the remark. Nevertheless, it was hard for me to believe Trump had changed his spots.

When I arrived back in Canada just over 36 hours ago, I got onto my computer after I unpacked and tried to catch up on the hundreds of unread emails. Then I learned of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and White Supremacist in the “Unite the Right” rally that had instigated violence in in the small quiet college town of Charlottesville, Virginia. The following tweet of Donald Trump, usually so promiscuous in his condemnation of others by name, followed the earlier statement that I had heard. In the second statement, he condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” And, as his wont, he repeated the phrase: “on many sides.” Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, claimed falsely that people on both sides showed up in Charlottesville “looking for trouble” and that he wouldn’t assign blame for the death of a counter-protester on either group. As very many commented, why had DT not named the perpetrators of the violence, the loose coalition of extreme conservatives and fringe groups that gave energy to his campaign – the alt-right?

The white supremacist, Richard Spencer, a key organizer of the torch parade in Charlottesville, Virginia, invented the term. Alt-right is “identity politics for white Americans and for Europeans around the world.” The alt-right includes white supremacism, white nationalism and the neo-Nazis, all opposed to diversity, multiculturalism as well as democracy and universalism.

Daily Stormer on his alt-right page wrote: “He [DT] didn’t attack us. Refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.” Yet Stormer’s web site disingenuously insists that, “We here at the Daily Stormer are opposed to violence. We seek revolution through the education of the masses.”

These neo-fascists praised DT for not surrendering to the liberal intelligentsia. More specifically, why had DT not named and condemned the Trump-heiler and chief rabble-rouser, 39-year-old Richard Spencer and his “torch-wielding bullies out for notoriety and intimidation of “nigger lovers.” Spencer was determined to “humiliate all those people who oppose us.” Why had DT made the protesters and anti-right protesters equivalent? Abraham Foxman head of the Anti-Defamation League insisted that, “It is time to condemn racist-white supremacist neo-Nazi hatred and violence by name!”

Before I try to explore that question, let me go back and put the rally and the anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville in context. The rally against the planned removal of a statue of General Robert Edward Lee from Forsythe Park in Charlottesville and a statue of Jackson from another park became the symbol of the political-right resistance to the changes that have been underway in America. It was a bronze statue of Lee on his horse, Traveller, put up, not after the Civil War, but over fifty years later during the institutionalization of the Jim Crow laws.

In the movement to remove symbols of hatred, racism and anti-black ideology, including the confederate flag and various statues of those who led the battle to retain slavery, this effort in historical correction recently received an impetus with the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House and the statue of Jefferson Davis, the ostensible president of the Confederacy, from New Orleans. Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans’ mayor, explained: “The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.”

The city council of Charlottesville had voted to move its statue of Lee to another location and rename Lee and Jackson Parks as Emancipation and Justice Parks, but the implementation has been delayed by court action. Charlottesville’s Circuit Court Judge, Richard Moore, issued a six-month restraining order lest the moving of the statue result in “irreparable damage to a war memorial.” As the mayor explained, “we have these two [statues] that have drawn a lot of controversy, and what we’ve heard from many people in the community, and what I believe, is that we’d be better off adding more history, creating a dynamic present that shows both the offense and the response to the offense. That creates a conversation and does not fall into what I think is the concern that, if we don’t remember the past, we’ll be condemned to repeat it.” After all, monumentalizing a person is intended to set one version of history or anti-history physically and literally in stone or bronze. No wonder statutes come alive during historiographical wars.

Individuals who are unequivocally not racists have opposed the removal of these symbols. One of those happens to be the very progressive mayor of Charlottesville, Michael Signer who happens to be a Jew and who has been the target of a slew of personal anti-Semitic attacks by the alt-right. On the rational level, I have read the following arguments of others:

“I do agree on the intrinsic value of historical monuments. All histories and civilizations are built on injustices, their symbols (while serving as a tribute) are an important reminder of those times. The basic difference should be past and present. A confederate statue built in the past surely must be viewed differently than a confederate flag raised today. By pulling down a statue we don’t erase a history. The second argument in favor of leaving historical monuments alone is that it is precisely pulling them down, or wanting to, that draws attention to them in the first place and ignites white supremacist ideology and the explosion of polarities we’re witnessing with such frequency today.”

“There are many existing forms of art that represent or stem from political movements, but they are first and foremost works of art and should be perceived as such – not as propaganda (e.g. cultural revolution in China).”

Fortunately, the fallacies in these so-called counter-arguments against removal of these symbols is easy enough to point out. Historical monuments do not have “intrinsic” value. The statues of Hitler, say the one in the Austrian village of Braunau Am Inn where he was born, the many statues of Lenin and Stalin, the statues of Saddam Hussein, all lacked any intrinsic value. The role those statues play in processing memory is far more important than the sculptural product.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who supported the removal of the statue of Davis, did so with the following argument: “These monuments have stood not as historic or educational markers of our legacy of slavery and segregation, but in celebration of it. I believe we must remember all of our history, but we need not revere it. To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in some of our most prominent public places is not only an inaccurate reflection of our past, it is an affront to our present, and a bad prescription for our future.”

  1. The statue of Lee is not primarily a marker of history, but a celebration of certain values from that history and was erected to help reinstate those values in new forms.
  2. There is a difference between remembering all history versus revering some parts and putting them on a pedestal.
  3. Remembering belongs in museums, with the context provided to educate viewers, not in public places which are intended to celebrate values; this was the option the mayor of Charlottesville favoured, but to do so in place by providing supplementary monuments and a contextual frame.
  4. In terms of an educational role, without the context to provide that education, we only receive a deformed view of history.
  5. The radical separation of past versus present made by the non-racist opponents to removal of the statue is a false dichotomy, for the past is very much part of the present and is used to forge the future.
  6. Last, and least important, the statue is not very good piece of art, though the original sculptor was the artist, Henry Shrady, who happened to be Jewish and was the artist who sculpted the statue of George Washington at Valley Forge and created the Ulysses S. Grant memorial on the United States Capitol, both recognized generally as excellent works. However, the sculptor who finished the work on Lee in Charlottesville when Shrady died at a relatively young age in 1922 was the Italian-American, Leo Lentelli, whose work, though demonstrating great craftsmanship, is stilted and never comes alive even as it displays Lee in a proud moment of courage.

However, the key proof of the fallacy of the arguments opposing the removal of the statue were the actions on display of the racists. They came from all parts of America, some dressed in combat fatigues and openly carrying semi-automatic weapons, others with shields and batons, and still others with bottles of water that actually contained mace and pepper spray. They physically attacked the local peaceful demonstrators who supported removal of the statue and opposed the neo-Nazi demonstration.

These purveyors of violence proved demonstrably and clearly that neo-fascism is alive and well in America. Though no longer stalking the halls of academia as it did eighty years ago when the president of the American Political Science Association in his 1934 presidential address dismissed the “dogma of universal suffrage,” criticized democracy for allowing “the ignorant, the uninformed and the anti-social elements” to vote, and urged Americans to appropriate elements of fascist doctrine and practice, unfortunately the ideology is now parked in the White House.

As Ernst Nolte wrote over fifty years ago in his phenomenological analysis of the political movement, Fascism in its Epoch (in English in 1965, The Three Faces of Fascism), fascism, whether in its French, Italian (the theoretical version that I had focused upon in my recent writings) or German Social nationalist “synthesis,” were all anti-modernist, anti-progressive and anti-liberal in the name of national self-assertion, but rooted deeply in stoking fear. Although America is not going through a recession but an economic boom, though radical Islamicism is nowhere equivalent to the danger of communism, and though American fascists no longer have the model of Germany as an economic and military powerhouse – it is now an economic and ethical powerhouse – yet a resurgence of fascism in America has been clearly shown to be possible given growing disparities in income, given the hollowing out of many small towns in America and given the fears of globalization, not only in America but in Europe as well.

The time has proven to be ripe for a resurgence of fascism. It must be fought. But first it must be identified in all its expressions.

Trump Fascist Part VII: Dystopia and Utopia

Trump Fascist Part VII: Dystopia and Utopia

by

Howard Adelman

I have not spent full blogs on many of the basic philosophic premises of fascism and instead have included them as minor keys within a larger discussion of one principle, such as the reference to the breakdown between the public and the private within the discussion of chaos, democracy and fascism. However, there are two remaining themes that I want to discuss at some length in this blog, the dystopian view of the existing world and the utopian portrait of a nostalgic as well as future world characteristic of fascism.

As was widely noted when Donald Trump delivered his acceptance speech after he won the nomination at the Republican Convention, in contrast to Barack Obama’s stress on hope and the typical stress on optimism characterizing presidential hopefuls, DT painted a very bleak picture of both the state of the nation and the world.  In a dystopia, people live dehumanized and fearful lives. Of course, it is an imaginary world conforming very little to reality, but all the more powerful because of that.

DT’s portrait of the state of the nation was cast in terms of murder and mayhem, moving towards financial ruin because of unfair trade deals and an invasion by immigrants and refugees. More recently, he insisted he won New Hampshire – he did not; he won the primary – because it is a drug-infested den.

The general explanation is that he was tapping into widespread anger and fear among white working-class men. However, in listening to interviews in the states that he won and among individuals who voted for him, I heard no expressions of fear, except in the abstract – that is, if something is not done, the U.S. is headed to hell in a basket. I heard very little anger. His supporters were calm and determined to have a candidate that reflected themselves and only fearful that DT and the Republican-led Congress would not deliver. Thus, the irony. They voted for the candidate who held the most jaundiced view of America than anyone had ever expressed on the campaign trail while they most deeply wanted to preserve the status quo where they lived in the American heartland.

The dystopic text for comprehending the regime is not George Orwell’s 1984 but Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In that dystopic novel, order is not maintained by Big Brother watching your every move and thought, but by an amusement and entertainment absorption resulting in “blissed-out and vacant servitude.” (Christopher Hitchens) However, we live in an age of celebrity politics. DT as a candidate won power on a platform of “draining the swamp” by appointing billionaires, extras from Goldman Sachs and generals. In ignoring this and many other blatant contradictions, those who voted for DT were not “blissed out” by an absorption in amusement and entertainment, but rather in soap box melodrama both before and after the election. Aldous Huxley was right about distraction, but wrong about the vehicle. For the latter, as it turns out, is even more effective in burying facts and analysis in weepy clichés rather than sensual distractions.

In 1935, the great muckraking novelist, Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, warning about the immanent possibility of fascism in America. As Brian Bethune wrote in an essay in Macleans in January, “A dystopian reading list for the Donald Trump era,” the political style of the president was to sneer at “tact” and “courtesy.” Civility was not to be a hallmark of such an administration. Rather, a self-advertising and self-promoting hero defines himself as the only one who can make America great again in a fictitious America where citizens hide away fearful of marauding hordes of migrants.

The irony – one among many – is that this promoter of chaos mentioned “law and order’ four times in accepting the role of presidential candidate for the Republican Party. Further, his first TV ad in black and white at the beginning of the year, when he sought the nomination, included images of the two accused San Bernardino shooters, missiles, a body on a stretcher, bombs dropping on buildings. In this hellscape of riots that bore little resemblance to the then current reality in America, DT painted a portrait of the American nightmare rather than the American dream, the reference point for almost all American politicians running for high office.

This did not mean that his platform, his program and his performance lacked a utopian dimension. Quite the reverse. It was integral to his appeal.  DT views America as a once great nation (assuming, of course, that his words approximate his deep beliefs – a big assumption in itself) that is currently beset by a myriad of problems resulting from the U.S. being exploited and used by the rest of the world. He campaigned on a vision: “Make America Great Again.” Not only has the world taken advantage of America, but the elites have betrayed their own country.

Of course, the dystopic and utopian sides of his coin of the realm are at one and the same time a distorted picture of America’s problems and wrongheaded view of the solutions to the real problems of the country. DT promised to bring the coal industry back to life and restore the well-paying jobs in the industry. He is averse to involvements in foreign wars, but has been unable to forge an effective military doctrine to extract the U.S. from Afghanistan.

However, he has delivered his promises to the business world as he wages war on regulations. He promised to produce jobs and reduce unemployment and so far the economy has sizzled even higher than under Obama so that the U.S. is at the lowest record of unemployment in sixteen years – 4.3%. The unemployment rate was even lower in 19 of America’s fifty states, ironically mostly in states that voted for Hillary Clinton. Within the vision of this schizophrenic dystopian president one finds a utopian vision of America with full employment, high paying jobs, job security and thriving businesses operating in a country free from foreign wars, a reduced influx of “unwanted” migrants and increased domestic freedom from both regulations and taxes.

However, DT is a particularly odd type of saviour. For he has never been interested in creating a new world order. Nor even a new national order. His slogan is not. “Make America great,” but “Make America great again.” His utopia hearkens back to the vision America projected of itself when DT was a boy in the fifties, when the image was there, but not the reality of widespread discrimination, of the Korean and later Vietnam War. For DT, the strains and stresses of domestic strife in the U.S. began the long decline. D.T.’s utopian vision is a backward gaze immersed in nostalgia and mindblindness.

Linking the dystopian and utopian vision is the projection of himself as a doer, as a man of action, as a leader who signs executive order after executive, order, many, if not most, without reflection, vetting or input even by his own party or even cabinet. But if he emerges as disastrous on domestic policy requiring legislation (repeal and replace Obamacare), his record is even more disastrous when it comes to foreign policy. The Philippines has been allowed to fall into the Chinese sphere of influence. He is determined to destroy the Iranian nuclear agreement even as his officials certify that Iran has kept to its terms, even as his rants have undermined the relatively moderate leadership of Hassan Rouhani and even though his views are contradicted by his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. DT also spoke of supporting NATO in contradistinction to DT who wallows in belittling the alliance, wearing on the nerves of his allies. His one foreign policy success, getting through the UN Security Council a unanimous vote, resolution 2371, in support of severest sanctions ever against North Korea, but even that success might be highly overrated if China does not follow through with strict compliance on the boycott of North Korea.

However, even the North Korean UN victory cannot be attributed in any way to Donald Trump, but to the twin wrestling team of Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, his ambassador to the UN. For unlike their boss, they take the importance of the UN, and particularly the Security Council, seriously. They both emphasize the importance of diplomacy, though Nikki is more likely to wave the big stick. Rex Tillerson stresses clarity. “We do not seek a regime change; we do not seek the collapse of the regime; we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula; we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel.”

The sanctions passed will slash North Korea’s revenues from coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood by one billion dollars, a full one-third of its foreign currency earnings. The victory is also noteworthy because it relied on subtle diplomacy rather than shifts between rants and insults versus excessive praise and flattery. We can only watch to see if China, and, to a lesser extent, Russia really comply with the sanctions resolution.

Utopian/dystopian frameworks for politics lead to mindblindness to the actual problems nations face and the realistic alternatives for resolving them. The split undercuts rational analysis and detailed empirical research. Most importantly, it feeds the politics of centering attention on a leader who sees and projects a reality that is overwhelmingly a product of his own mind. As such, it reinforces an attachment between that leader and followers caught up in a similar or identical imaginative worldview.