The Primacy of Truth: Parashat Vayeira Genesis 18:1-22:24

If Abraham can tell a self-serving lie, why can’t Donald Trump? Abraham told a whopper, not simply a white lie. (I have included the text in Hebrew and English at the end.) He told Abimelach that Sarah was his sister – not his half-sister and certainly not his wife. It was the second time he told the same lie. In Egypt, Abraham told Pharaoh the same thing (Genesis 12). Since taking a wife into a harem would be a horrendous abuse of the social order for both Pharaoh and Abimelech, the lie could have disastrous consequences.

On hearing that such a beautiful woman was Abraham’s sister, Abimelech, king of Gerar, took her, that is, put her in his harem only to have God reveal to him in a dream that he had actually taken a man’s wife and was on the verge of committing adultery, a heinous sin. Abimelech pleaded innocence, innocence in his heart because that was not his intention (Abraham had lied to him and so had Sarah). and innocence in his hand because he had not yet laid a hand on Sarah. God let Abimelech off the hook.

But what about Abraham? God knew he had been a liar – twice, not once. And about the same matter. When Abimelech confronted him, Abraham offered two excuses. He did it to save his own life, for strangers would have killed him to take possession of such a beautiful woman. Second, it was not a real lie but a circumlocution. Sarah was indeed his sister, but his half-sister, seed of his father but not his mother. It was a misleading statement rather than a bold-faced lie.

Abimelech did not then remonstrate Abraham for his lie, but, in fact, heaped rewards upon him and was, in turn rewarded by God by lifting the curse of barrenness from his household just as He had previously lifted the plagues from Egypt for Pharaoh. But what of Abraham? Did God punish him for the lie? God did nothing. One interpretation is that Abraham did nothing wrong, either because: a) God did this for a higher purpose; b) Abraham was a prophet and could be easily forgiven for a very slight exercise of making a misleading statement; c) and/or the lie was justified to ensure that Abraham survived to serve that higher purpose.

Let’s be clear, very clear. Abraham told what is apparently a bold-faced lie. But was it a bold-faced lie? “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal truthfully are His delight. A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims foolishness.” (Proverbs 12:22-23) Abraham told a white lie as a prudent man concerned with his own survival. He did not tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He did not speak under oath. But only fools tell the whole truth. It is wise to be discreet and keep certain knowledge to yourself.

However, Abraham did not simply withhold information out of prudence. He misled. Further, in his misleading statement cum bold-faced lie, Abraham endangered others. Pharaoh and Abimelech sinned against their social norms, albeit unknowingly, and against Abraham’s God? What if the lie could make God look bad in the eyes of non-Hebrews?  Truth and Peace or non-conflict are not two disconnected alternatives; they are complementary. Rabbi Shimon (B’reishit Rabbah 8.5) taught that Peace had opposed God creating humans because they would be in perpetual conflict. Truth also argued against creating humans, but for a very different reason; humans will be indisposed to tell the truth. Confronted with these very uncomfortable prophetic voices and opposition to his will, in a rage, God cast Truth out of heaven and down to earth. Not Peace but Truth.

Why one rather than the other or even both?  Because humans would need truth even more than peace. When we speak, we must consider the consequences of our words on others. That is why we must be prudent when speaking. I tell the truth – generally. But prudence is not my forte. When others are upset at what I say, I insist – but I told the truth. When I saw my daughter-in-law returning from a very hard day, I told her she looked horrible. She did look wan and worn out from two very hard days in a row. But I did not lead with suggesting she might be working too hard. Instead, that followed my proclamation on her appearance. It may have been truthful, but what I said was very imprudent and hurtful. And unhelpful.

Our words must be boundaried by compassion. Temper truth with diplomacy. But, as Rabbi Mary Zamore wrote in her dvar Torah on this parashat, truth must retain its primacy. A truthful but prudent statement that deceives somewhat by omission, that is, a white lie, misleads somewhat only because of compassion for the other. But Abraham was not guided by a concern for the other, but by his own survival. Further, in that concern, he even endangered others. His was not a white lie but a bold-faced one. His was not a judicious restriction on his speech out of concern for the other. Nor was it an exception, but a habit.

However, Abraham redeemed himself. How? He admitted to his lie. He did not cover up. For as I have repeated many times, the greatest sin in the Torah is always the cover-up, not the lie itself. Truth, where possible, but not always the full truth. When concerned for the other, prudence dictates omission.

Even in this case, there is a way to be prudent without telling an outright lie. “Don’t you love this new scarf I bought?” Reply: “the colour suits you.” You engage in circumlocution by telling a partial truth, but do not honestly answer the question. Because you may not love the scarf. In fact, you may dislike it. But she has bought it. She may be unable to return it. A diplomat might ask what other scarves did she see? What were their merits compared to this one? Why did she choose this one? Suggesting the possibility of second thoughts is one way of avoiding a hurtful statement.

However, when Sarah mocked Abraham when he told her that God had promised that she would have a child, her forthrightness was not guided by prudence. What she said was hurtful. She implied not only that she was too old to have a child, but so was he. Further, even worse, she suggested that God might be a liar. And she said all this to protect herself from hurt and further disappointment.

Abraham told a partial lie to protect himself. Sarah told a partial truth to protect herself. Neither of their statements were guided by prudence. However, both owned up to their mistakes. Donald Trump tells outright lies, does so only with consideration for his own benefit and, worst of all, never admits to telling the lie but engages in one cover-up after another. Further, his minions, even relatively honourable ones, act to excuse, distract from and disguise those lies. His worst ones engage in outright lies themselves.

Nikki Haley was one of the best that Donald Trump appointed to his administration. She thinks that she is just being prudent when she is confronted with Trump’s repeated lying. “That is just who he is.” That is “just how he talks.” These are just “slip-ups.” She refrains from judgement without endorsing his statements. In her interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN last evening, she insisted that President Trump was always truthful “with her.”

But is this just prudence? Further, when she questions whether impeachment is appropriate given that he may have asked for a favour and a so-called quid pro quo, but there was not there there, is she not facilitating a cover-up in the claim of prudence? In the end, she claims, he did not withhold the military aid. In the end, he did not get the Ukrainian leadership to instigate an inquiry. Finally, she insisted that there is only a year left in his presidency. Let the American people who chose him make the decision, not his political foes, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Wait for the election and let the American voters make the choice.

Nikki omits so much that what she says is transformed from prudential speech to bold-faced lies. Most of all because she claims to stand on a higher ground of protecting the democratic voice. She does no such thing. In her soothing assurances, she is protecting a lying and self-serving president who is willing to let Ukrainian soldiers die for his own political self-preservation. Democracy is not simply about allowing people to choose, but allowing the public to make informed choices. The hearings currently in Congress are the parallel to a Grand Jury, an effort to gather information and make a decision to indict. The information gathered is critical to making an informed choice.

Further, in engaging in such deliberations, the House of Representatives is carrying out its constitutional duties. They are gathering information to determine whether or not there has been what appears to be a trade-off of a long-promised meeting in the White House needed by a nascent president of Ukraine to send a signal to the Russians with whom his country is at war that he has American backing. The members of Congress are gathering information to assess whether what appears to be the case is true, that the President withheld providing Congressionally approved arms until the new Ukrainian regime agreed to announce that it would be holding an inquiry into the conduct of the Bidens in 2016.

There is speculation that Haley is engaging in this imprudent cover-up to succeed Vice-President Pence in the 2020 election. She denies any such effort. I believe her. But she may be positioning herself to become the presidential nominee for 2024 and trying to retain her bona fides before the Trump base. Her motives are suspect because they do not seem to be driven by what is best for the American people, by what is best for their ability to make an informed choice and by what is commanded of the House of Representatives by the constitution.

Nikki thinks that impeachment is the ultimate and extreme act unwarranted by the circumstances, but without supporting ensuring that all the evidence is brought forth to make such a determination. But impeachment is not the parallel to a death penalty. It is simply the appropriate act to take if indeed high crimes and misdemeanors, including bribery, have been employed by the President in contravention to what is agreed generally to be in the U.S. interests as well as the well-being of a threatened ally. Covering-up remains the most egregious sin of all. For if Trump is allowed to get away with his behavior without consequences, without as many facts as possible being put on the table, not only would Trump not be held accountable by the House of Representatives, but he would be allowed to continue to insist that he is indeed unaccountable to any one but the voter – unaccountable to established policy by Congress, unaccountable to the rule of law, and unaccountable to the Constitution.

His is a populist creed and Nikki Haley is not just being diplomatic for possibly self-serving purposes, but betrays her willingness to surrender to that populist credo. The people rule. The majority rules. The strong man rules who has the backing of the people. To hell with institutional procedures. To hell with the rule of law. To hell with the constitution. Where is Nikki Haley’s compassion that should determine her prudence? Holding a holder of high office accountable with the possibility of removing him from that office is not anywhere akin to the death penalty. “You’re fired” is not the same as, “You’re dead.”

Prudence is emet shel chesed, “kind and loving truth,” not self-serving omissions, distractions and irrelevancies. All the evidence thus far presented points unequivocally to an effort by the President of the United States to withhold funds authorized by Congress to the Ukrainian government as well as a promise of a meeting in the White House between the presidents of both nations until Ukraine publicly announced that it would be holding investigations into possible Ukrainian influence in the American 2016 election and the Bidens’ role in that effort. The fact that the aid was eventually released after the whistleblower statement became public, does not detract from the appearance of an offer of a bribe. And an offer made, not to ensure the Ukrainians look into corruption, but to suggest and imply corruption by a person who may be President Trump’s most formidable rival in the 2020 election, is a high crime and misdemeanor.

Blackmail that in the end that does not work is still blackmail. A conspiracy to commit a crime is a crime. Doing so primarily for self-centered reasons as suggested by the testimony of Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr.’s testimony that one of his aides overheard Trump in a cell phone conversation in a Ukrainian restaurant task Ambassador Sondland whether the Ukrainians were moving towards launching the investigations requested, the same Sondland that Trump claims he hardly knew. “I hardly know the gentleman.” Further, Sondland told that aide after the phone call ended that Trump cared more about the investigations than the well-being of Ukraine. The blackmail was there. The blackmail was self-serving and, in fact, ran directly contrary to the interests of both the U.S. as well as Ukraine.

Further, it had nothing to do with Ukraine’s endemic corruption but only with an announcement about investigating the Bidens and only the Bidens. Taylor testified that Sondland told him that there would be a stalemate re the Ukrainian president’s visit and, more importantly, the release of the aid until the investigation was announced.

George Kent, the top diplomat in the Ukraine, who had warned his superiors about the inappropriateness of Hunter Biden sitting on the Board of Directors of a company owned by a possibly corrupt Ukrainian oligarch, nevertheless had never heard of “Crowdstrike.” Nor was there any evidence of actual corruption by the Bidens and none of the new Ukrainian government. He informed the inquiry that the appropriate Office of Management in the U.S. had given the new Ukrainian government a seal of approval with respect to corruption as a condition of the aid funds being released. Nevertheless, there is no indication that Trump was concerned with Ukrainian corruption but only with announcing an investigation into the Bidens.

The bottom line:

Trump is a repeated self-serving liar – but that in itself is not an impeachable offence.

Trump refuses to be accountable to the rule of law – but that in itself does not appear to be an impeachable offence.

Trump refuses even to be accountable to the Constitution and refuses to cooperate with the House of Representatives in fulfilling its constitutional duties – but that in itself does not appear to be an impeachable offence.

However, if the evidence continues to build and support the claim that he withheld funds from the Ukraine on condition that they investigate his potential rival in the 2020 election, this is explicitly an impeachable offence.

The Senate, given the propensity of the Republicans to draw their wagons in a circle to protect the president, even when it involves misdirection, distraction, serious omissions, false claims, and even outright lies by some of them, may not vote for impeachment. Nevertheless, the majority of the House of Representatives will have done its duty to hold the president accountable and to inform the public. That is laudable behaviour which could backfire in some ways to jeopardize their election prospects in 2020. Even so, it is the right thing to do when imprudent outright lies threaten the well-being of the United States, the well-being of Ukraine, the well-being of peace in our time, and, perhaps most importantly, has most likely led to the loss of lives of brave Ukrainian soldiers fighting the Russians and their proxies.

Genesis Chapter 20 בְּרֵאשִׁית

א  וַיִּסַּע מִשָּׁם אַבְרָהָם אַרְצָה הַנֶּגֶב, וַיֵּשֶׁב בֵּין-קָדֵשׁ וּבֵין שׁוּר; וַיָּגָר, בִּגְרָר. 1 And Abraham journeyed from thence toward the land of the South, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar.
ב  וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל-שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ, אֲחֹתִי הִוא; וַיִּשְׁלַח, אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ גְּרָר, וַיִּקַּח, אֶת-שָׂרָה. 2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife: ‘She is my sister.’ And Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah.
ג  וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל-אֲבִימֶלֶךְ, בַּחֲלוֹם הַלָּיְלָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, הִנְּךָ מֵת עַל-הָאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר-לָקַחְתָּ, וְהִוא, בְּעֻלַת בָּעַל. 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him: ‘Behold, thou shalt die, because of the woman whom thou hast taken; for she is a man’s wife.’
ד  וַאֲבִימֶלֶךְ, לֹא קָרַב אֵלֶיהָ; וַיֹּאמַר–אֲדֹנָי, הֲגוֹי גַּם-צַדִּיק תַּהֲרֹג. 4 Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said: ‘LORD, wilt Thou slay even a righteous nation?
ה  הֲלֹא הוּא אָמַר-לִי אֲחֹתִי הִוא, וְהִיא-גַם-הִוא אָמְרָה אָחִי הוּא; בְּתָם-לְבָבִי וּבְנִקְיֹן כַּפַּי, עָשִׂיתִי זֹאת. 5 Said he not himself unto me: She is my sister? and she, even she herself said: He is my brother. In the simplicity of my heart and the innocence of my hands have I done this.’
ו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים בַּחֲלֹם, גַּם אָנֹכִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי בְתָם-לְבָבְךָ עָשִׂיתָ זֹּאת, וָאֶחְשֹׂךְ גַּם-אָנֹכִי אוֹתְךָ, מֵחֲטוֹ-לִי; עַל-כֵּן לֹא-נְתַתִּיךָ, לִנְגֹּעַ אֵלֶיהָ. 6 And God said unto him in the dream: ‘Yea, I know that in the simplicity of thy heart thou hast done this, and I also withheld thee from sinning against Me. Therefore suffered I thee not to touch her.
ז  וְעַתָּה, הָשֵׁב אֵשֶׁת-הָאִישׁ כִּי-נָבִיא הוּא, וְיִתְפַּלֵּל בַּעַדְךָ, וֶחְיֵה; וְאִם-אֵינְךָ מֵשִׁיב–דַּע כִּי-מוֹת תָּמוּת, אַתָּה וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לָךְ. 7 Now therefore restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live; and if thou restore her not, know thou that thou shalt surely die, thou, and all that are thine.’
ח  וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אֲבִימֶלֶךְ בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיִּקְרָא לְכָל-עֲבָדָיו, וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת-כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם; וַיִּירְאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, מְאֹד. 8 And Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ears; and the men were sore afraid.
ט  וַיִּקְרָא אֲבִימֶלֶךְ לְאַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מֶה-עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ וּמֶה-חָטָאתִי לָךְ, כִּי-הֵבֵאתָ עָלַי וְעַל-מַמְלַכְתִּי, חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה:  מַעֲשִׂים אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יֵעָשׂוּ, עָשִׂיתָ עִמָּדִי. 9 Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him: ‘What hast thou done unto us? and wherein have I sinned against thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done.’
י  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם:  מָה רָאִיתָ, כִּי עָשִׂיתָ אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה. 10 And Abimelech said unto Abraham: ‘What sawest thou, that thou hast done this thing?’
יא  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם, כִּי אָמַרְתִּי רַק אֵין-יִרְאַת אֱלֹהִים, בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַהֲרָגוּנִי, עַל-דְּבַר אִשְׁתִּי. 11 And Abraham said: ‘Because I thought: Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake.
יב  וְגַם-אָמְנָה, אֲחֹתִי בַת-אָבִי הִוא–אַךְ, לֹא בַת-אִמִּי; וַתְּהִי-לִי, לְאִשָּׁה. 12 And moreover she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and so she became my wife.
יג  וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר הִתְעוּ אֹתִי, אֱלֹהִים מִבֵּית אָבִי, וָאֹמַר לָהּ, זֶה חַסְדֵּךְ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשִׂי עִמָּדִי:  אֶל כָּל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר נָבוֹא שָׁמָּה, אִמְרִי-לִי אָחִי הוּא. 13 And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said unto her: This is thy kindness which thou shalt show unto me; at every place whither we shall come, say of me: He is my brother.’
יד  וַיִּקַּח אֲבִימֶלֶךְ צֹאן וּבָקָר, וַעֲבָדִים וּשְׁפָחֹת, וַיִּתֵּן, לְאַבְרָהָם; וַיָּשֶׁב לוֹ, אֵת שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ. 14 And Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and men-servants and women-servants, and gave them unto Abraham, and restored him Sarah his wife.
טו  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ, הִנֵּה אַרְצִי לְפָנֶיךָ:  בַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֶיךָ, שֵׁב. 15 And Abimelech said: ‘Behold, my land is before thee: dwell where it pleaseth thee.’
טז  וּלְשָׂרָה אָמַר, הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי אֶלֶף כֶּסֶף לְאָחִיךְ–הִנֵּה הוּא-לָךְ כְּסוּת עֵינַיִם, לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר אִתָּךְ; וְאֵת כֹּל, וְנֹכָחַת. 16 And unto Sarah he said: ‘Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is for thee a covering of the eyes to all that are with thee; and before all men thou art righted.’
יז  וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אַבְרָהָם, אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים; וַיִּרְפָּא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וְאֶת-אִשְׁתּוֹ, וְאַמְהֹתָיו–וַיֵּלֵדוּ. 17 And Abraham prayed unto God; and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maid-servants; and they bore children.
יח  כִּי-עָצֹר עָצַר יְהוָה, בְּעַד כָּל-רֶחֶם לְבֵית אֲבִימֶלֶךְ, עַל-דְּבַר שָׂרָה, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָהָם.  {ס} 18 For the LORD had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah Abraham’s wife. {S}

The Days Of…..The American Injustice System

Last night we binged. We watched the last four of the eight episodes of The Night of…For those who have seen the series on HBO, you will know why. For those who haven’t, here is why.

Last week, I visited my eldest son and his family in Princeton, New Jersey. He suggested a list of shows that we had not seen and was most enthusiastic about this one. The first reason to watch is that he has excellent taste and discernment. This 2016 HBO miniseries is a mixture of a detective, courtroom and prison drama tied together by a horrific murder committed in the first episode. Though based on an older 2008 British TV series called Criminal Justice, the eight episodes are set in Manhattan and Queens and unmistakably convey the ground level flavour of gritty New York.

The opening of the series, which ran to almost 80 minutes, set the stage for the following seven 60-minute episodes. It is grisly and horrifying; you know what is coming as it unfolds. We could only watch the first episode on the first evening. We were totally shaken up. The next evening, we got through three episodes. And by the third evening, the miniseries had clearly turned into a courtroom and prison drama so we watched 4 episodes in a row. It was a series in which you know how it will end up just as you know who did not do the horrific crime in the first episode. The suspense and the terror are in the journey. Further, the real terror is that series is about the underside of New York, more specifically, its injustice system that has at best a 50/50 chance of delivering justice.

Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a Muslim college student living with his family in Queens. We see him at home and in a math class with a professor writing an incomprehensible math formula on the blackboard. We know he is bright and he comes from a working-class family. His father, Salim Khan (Payman Maadi) drives a cab; his mother, Safar Khan (Poorna Jagannathan) works in a store selling saris. Originally, I was told that this was a TV series about the competition between a New York detective, Dennis Box (Bill Camp) and a down-but-not-quite-out criminal lawyer, John Stone played magnificently by John Turturro. Both actors were nominated for Emmies. However, it was Riz Ahmed who won the Emmy in 2017. His portrayal of the transition from an average “good boy,” which, of course, he will not exactly be, into a seasoned prisoner at Riker’s Island is indeed a marvel to behold. It has perpetual consequences. Naz is just a regular kid who is dealt a series of blows by circumstances much more than his own wayward actions – stealing his father’s cab, taking ecstasy, running away instead of calling 911, turning left illegally, trying once again to run away from the cops when it is a clear impossibility. He is trapped. And the miniseries is about the larger prison of life and not just Riker’s Island.

The recommendation came from an impeccable source. The plotting is terrific. As is the cast. However, the writing (Richard Price and Steven Zaillian) and directing (Steven Zaillian and James Marsh) as well as the cinematography, a seamless result of three different artists, Frederick Elmes, Igor Martinovic and Robert Elswit, are all marvelous. So too is the large supporting cast, from prime roles such as Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin), the prosecuting attorney, and Amara Karan as Chandra Kapoor, the lead defence attorney, to small cameo roles, such as Hon Jen Two as Dr. Yee, a practitioner of Chinese alternative medicine, and Chip Zien as Dr. Katz, a formidable criminal pathologist. When these components come together, the result is a marvel to behold. Jeff Russo’s music heightened the anguish and pain as the series unfolded.

That is not to say that the mini-series was perfect. Far from it. There were enough holes in the plot to, as they say, drive a tractor trailer through it, such as, for example, failing to note that the alleged murderer of the girl stabbed twenty-two times was not spattered in blood. But the creativity is evident because you set aside all the shortcomings you notice along the way. Is it even plausible that the defence attorney would behave the way she did? I just didn’t care.

My early education in contemporary literature – as opposed to all the green diamond nineteenth century novels and science fiction I read in books I took out from the library – was rooted in Chicago and only graduated to the New York internalized realism with J.D. Salinger in university. Theodor Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Willa Cather and Edna Ferber were my mentors. So were the plethora of dime store novelists I mostly read about crime gangs and mobsters who served as populist imitators. They caught me up, not so much in the gritty realism of New York, but the alternative underground reality that disdained the genteel realism of writers for whom I had no time. I used to dream of being a mob boss.  

The city, the urban landscape, was not simply a place of progress onward and upward of the immigrant’s dream. It was also a nightmare of a disorienting and frightening reality whenever you left the safety of your home turf. But Chicago was not Toronto. Feeling and sensitivity had to be introduced through side vignettes and seemingly remote and disconnected artifacts, such as the life of a cat that John Stone adopted, or his eczema on his feet and neck. It is a world of walk-ups rather than steel skyscrapers.

We are also not among the steel skyscrapers that Chicago writers made an integral part of the cityscape. But in the world that Price and Zaillian create in New York. It is not the steel towers we experience. It is not the El raised above and the subterranean life below amidst these towers of wealth. In New York, we see, and, more importantly, experience the bridges and tunnels, the closing gates and grills with their broken locks or the thunderous multiple-locked gates of a prison. Manhattan and Queens become parts of a city in which people move sideways rather than vertically. Whether for a $500,000 house in Queens or a $10,000,000 brownstone in Manhattan, Price and Zaillian reveal an urban landscape united by loneliness, alienation, disparaging wit and caustic conversations.

New York fiction moves sideways. Chicago fiction moved up and down. T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was first published in the small Chicago magazine, Poetry. From Chicago, I read Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut and Saul Bellow. In contrast, from New York, we watch in an 8-part mini-series as a young college boy gets educated into the values and mores of prison life with its protectionist and drug rackets, its use of younger petrified boys as sexual tools who slit their wrists and prisoners who, when they get out of line, have their throats slit. Most of all, it is a city of disfigurement, from the tattoos on bodies to the skin rashes on people.

When I was in New York last week, I went with my granddaughter to see the J.D. Salinger exhibit at the New York Public Library. Holden Caulfield loved to punch holes in any phony idealization. Life was hypocritical and gritty. The New York subway was its exemplar. Where but in a New York exhibit to one of its greatest writers would you read a letter from Salinger to his publisher, not about quality, but about the design of the cover and the royalties which he wanted raised from 15% to 20% if the book sold over 40,000 copies and 25% if it sold over 100,000 copies. In China alone, 300,000 copies of Catcher in the Rye are sold every year.  

But if Caulfield looked at the world askance, in the miniseries, Riz Ahmed looks at the world in disbelief as his life moves through one horror after another as he tries to preserve whatever core of identity he can construct. He is neither an opportunist nor a cynic, but a traveler through time and the dirty and broken landscape of New York that inevitably washes anyone in its grime.

Washington is different than either Chicago or New York. Tomorrow a miniseries opens in Congress, The Days of… This is real realism, not the realism where a young 22-year-old girl is savagely murdered or where a mixture of boiling water and baby oil are thrown at your face. It will not be a trial of disfigurement but of calculation and impressions. It will not be a court case to reveal the truth – that is already too well known. Rather it will be a trail of persuasion, not of someone who is presumed innocent but where all the evidence points to his guilt. It will be about someone who is indisputably guilty, but the evidence for that guilt has to be presented in such a way as to convince the public, and, through the public, the Senate, so that the Senate of the United States need not have its integrity go down in flames.

But we know it will. We have become cynical about Washington. We have become downcast about the state of the leader of the free world. For in Washington, the system is disfigured, not the body of an individual, but the body politic as a whole. In a criminal trial, the presumption is of the innocence of the accused. That is not at issue in Washington. The evidence is overwhelming about the guilt of the president. The object is not to find and mount the evidence to show that there is a reasonable doubt to find the accused is not guilty. For the president is not on trial. Congress is. The question will be whether the obfuscation and distractions, the lies and misdirection, can be used to turn the public attention away from the president and onto the accusers. In a court trial, the defence attorney and the prosecutor battle it out. In Congress, we will watch – at least, I will watch  – a political rather than a legal process in which two political parties battle it out to see if one party or the other falls apart into squabbling factions or holds together to convince continuing support from a significant portion of the public.

Impeachment is a remnant of a monarchy in which the monarch and/or his minions can be driven from office rather than into jail. The United States is a democratic monarchy and its highest official is a president who cannot be removed by a vote of non-confidence in parliament. The barrier to removal is far higher. It is a two-step process. The first step in the transformation of the House of Representatives into a grand jury and the passage of an impeachment resolution. But the actual removal from office depends on the Senate once a majority in the House votes in favour of impeachment, that is, in favour of the equivalent of an indictment

What are the standards? The offence must be a high crime or misdemeanor. It can be a misdeed, such as holding up monies allocated by Congress for military aid to an ally for months. The cost may be many Ukrainian lives. But is a misdeed and not a criminal offence. It is a failure to carry out the duties of your office as expected. It can also be a criminal offence, but not necessarily a felony. Asking the president of an allied regime to look into the possible criminality of one’s possible opponent in an election would not normally be considered a felony. It is the equivalent of making a left turn when the sign says, “No left turn.” It is the equivalent of taking your father’s cab without his permission.

The act is only the equivalent of a felony if the president holds up transferring the funds authorized by Congress, not for any legitimate purpose, but as a means of making the regime carry out an action for the administrator’s personal or political benefit. What about the president delaying granting a hearing until signs are shown that the leader of the other country will mount the investigation requested? The issue is not whether the investigation is just, but that the investigation itself will discolour the seeming probity of one’s political opponent.

That may be just dirty politics. But it may be behaviour unexpected of a president. Whether or not it is criminal, it is misconduct given the oath of office and the Constitution that the President has sworn to uphold. However, in the end, the trial will not be about truth, but about whether the public can be persuaded that the truth reveals a pattern of behaviour so offensive to political norms that the holder of the highest office in the land can be removed from that office. The arguments, as in a criminal trial, will be about persuasion. We may know a person is innocent, but will the prosecuting attorney be able to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? You may know a person is guilty from the get-go, but the objective of formulating the indictment is to try to ensure that the trial in the Senate is as fair as possible.

But we know in advance that it will not be. We know in advance that numerous senators are committed to ignoring evidence presented. Their minds are made up. They will not be member of a jury who follow instructions to keep an open mind. The very premise of a judicial hearing is then fractured. And the only way to salvage a patina of respectability is if the Senate hearing is fair. But it will not be. The jury has been rigged. Can the Democrats convince the public sufficiently that a misdeed and possibly high crime has been committed – in that the President withheld monies allocated by Congress for the security of an ally and that such an action amounts to a high crime?

Will they succeed? I very much doubt it. For this all may simply be a prolegomenon for the coming election. Trials at this level usually fail. For in the end, the only way to try an elected monarch is through the ballot box. The impeachment proceedings are just the prologue to that main event.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part V: Feedback to Blogs on JSpace

Rather than writing up the rest of the program, I thought it would be better to provide feedback on my comments thus far. I did leave early in mid-afternoon and missed the fireworks with the Jewish Defense League (JDL).

JDL picketed and then one of them barged in, yelling “I want to see what the faces of kapos look like!” He was escorted out by some members, the hotel manager, and the police who had provided extra surveillance. The JDL had planned their protest for 4:00 pm when Peter Beinart was scheduled to speak on the importance of raising the progressive Zionist voice…making a difference…and where do we go from here? Ironically, the session JDL interrupted was the panel on challenging antisemitism and anti-Zionism, moderated by Yoni Goldstein and with panelists from CIJA and Ameinu, and an orthodox journalist from Tablet magazine.

The police advised Karen Mock to tell the people to leave via the mall to avoid the protesters and not to engage them. Regretfully, the JDL thugs stood outside both exits to the hotel and harassed JSpace participants. Many felt very unsafe. Afterwards, Peter tweeted: “A bit weird when Jewish Defence League showed up + police had to escort me to my taxi. But fascinating to experience JDL, a phenomenon I had thought was consigned to Jewish history. Like meeting followers of Shabtai Tsvi.”

Selections from some e-mail responses to my blogs:

Thank you, as usual, Howard for these wide-ranging and incisive and substantive blogs. 

I enjoyed the conference. 

Good Intellectual food for thought.

I am not sure it is as diverse a Space for opinions as painted.

Although this response may be premature, I must add, albeit briefly, that if progressive voices should be negotiating for a two-state solution based on “facts on the ground,” and those facts have shifted significantly to the advantage of Israel, then what possible incentive would Israel have to ever negotiate at all?  Sharon’s “facts on the ground” strategy has worked beautifully, and at this point, will deprive the Palestinians of any geography remotely resembling a state.  If Israel continues to pursue this strategy of death by a thousand cuts, we can be assured of one thing only: the peace process will have no chance whatsoever. The left has been played – yet again – believing that everyone’s good intentions would lead to a two-state solution and a just result.  Now we’re simply picking scraps up off the corpse, which is not exactly a hopeful metaphor.  Perhaps the American Jewish left will finally grow a spine, turn off the spigot of funding, and begin to use the financial leverage it may (or may not) have. 

Too “left:” It was too much of a “left” consensus on issues without any contrarian voices. 

Not diverse.

There were many well-meaning people at the Conference – their hearts are in the right place; on the other hand, self-indulgent “feel-goodism” may be a disservice to Israel in the neighborhood in which it lives.

I think overly wishful thinking at the conference and the generation of “feeling warm and fuzzy” (however virtuous) may have come at the expense of balance, historical accuracy, Zionism and realism.

Dialogue is a means not a value.

No speaker countered the assertion that BDS is not anti -Semitic; surely, one can have a “safe space“ and a more balanced view or, at least, one speaker to counter that BDS Is not anti-Semitic.

Beinart focused exclusively on the occupation Itself without explaining that it is not the cause of the conflict but rather the result of the conflict,

Israel does not seek war and all its actions in war have been defensive, the ultimate 70 year plus of Palestinian rejectionism and maximalism, the fact that half the PA budget in foreign aid goes to pay terrorists families without apology and continues without hesitation, the impossible security situation of Israel, the lessons learned from unconditional withdrawal in south Lebanon and Gaza, the intractable and abhorrent views and actions of Hezbollah and Hamas and their aggression and, finally, UN Res.242-all but ignored

Are they non-Zionist or conditional Zionists?

Beinart and his unrelenting hectoring for seemingly unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank by Israel and then “You’ll be perfect and we’ll love you!” Peter B. Also ignores the Talmudic and “Maimonidesian” (?) call for self -defence as a paramount virtue In protecting life while citing other biblical claims to support his position.

I believe in a two-state solution, but not one based on the 1967 borders. As long as the Palestinians fail to show a clear willingness to accept Israel’s right to exist and reflect it in its textbooks for example, there is a fat chance that they will get anything remotely close to what they want based on those borders. The longer they take to figure this out and keep on clinging to their rejectionism, the smaller the dimensions of their ultimate territory will be, the lesser number of token refugees will be allowed to return and their chances to claim East Jerusalem will become more and more remote. I would venture that it is totally unrealistic to expect Israel to remove any established settlements in area C, or that it will have much success in removing any other settlements on its own initiative. Also at this point we should be talking more about sovereignty rather than annexation in the West Bank, although you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that sovereignty is but a first step towards ultimate annexation. The so called “creeping annexation” has more to do with facts on the ground than with the complicity of Canadian Jews, who have hardly any leverage to influence the unfolding of events in the West Bank one way or the other.

As far as wine labeling goes, the precise listing of country of origin may respond to specific negotiated agreements in trade treaties. I personally would not mind having some information stating that the wines in question are imported from Judea (or Samaria) under Israeli sovereignty, just to rub it in and reflect the reality that Palestine is not a country but merely a territory waiting to acquire formal status as a country. I agree that people should be free to decide whether they want to buy those wines or not based on their convictions or their taste. And I can assure you that if those wines are good, they will sell regardless of any boycott as they will benefit from the extra publicity, even if it is considered by some as bad publicity, making them even more marketable among those who do not care about the boycott.

I guess I totally disagree with Israelis who support an unequal status for Israeli Palestinians. I believe in equal status for all Israelis, regardless of their religion or identity. And I also believe that Arabic should not lose its official status and all Israelis should be forced to learn that language as well.

Palestinian leadership must bear much or most of the burden for this state of affairs.

Anecdotally, I will tell you over a year ago, I met with Raja and asked him point blank if he accepts Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people? In very quick response, he said “no”! That was telling and an eye-opener! And hardened my views. And I lost all trust.

Peres, in my view, was quite reflective of the Israeli soul/buried consensus when he said, “we don’t wish to rule another people.” 

By the force of Palestinian rejection and maximalism and security imperatives, Israeli rule over the Palestinians has become normalized.

The second intifada it seems and Palestinian obstructionism and deep unyielding resistance to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people has made “occupation” go from periphery to mainstream over the years, particularly with Bibi. 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Abraham as an Iconic Model: Lech L’Cha Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

I am surprised often by the interpretations of many rabbis of Torah texts. Lech L’Cha is particularly open to being treated as a Rorschach test in at least three ways. First, some rabbis believe that we have to have a clear purpose in life so that our decisions and skills, our aptitudes and interests, our talents and the benefits bestowed to us by our parents, are put to best use. These attributes are treated as resources that must be exploited with maximum efficiency. We are commanded to determine in advance and as soon as possible what really matters to us so that our blood, sweat and tears can be utilized to best achieve what we aspire to become.

That means that we must not only clarify and articulate our goals in life in advance of the decisions we make, but we must develop a methodology that allows us to determine which decisions are most in accord with our goals of self-development. For some, that means trusting our gut instincts. For others it means allowing ourselves to be guided by our conscience. For still others it means listening to the message God has for us. I could go on. Each rabbi who opts for instructing us to define the person we want to be in advance may offer a different methodology or mixture of methods.

For example, discernment can be named as the magic key. “Discernment is clarity. It is fine-tuning. It is guidance. It is trusting intuition over fear, listening to the gentle fluttering of longing and to the whispers of the soul. It is self-reliance. It is the utter denial of negativity and the commitment to positive thinking.” Simply put, it is a continuous sorting out of our priorities and our decisions, in this case, by means of our intuition. Instead of reliance on God’s word and God’s instructions, self-reliance is advertised. The surprise comes when this process of self-actualization is equated with making the world a better place, “safer and more compassionate,” even though ego-centric methods have often been criticized for failing to recognize our responsibility for mending the world.

Who is chosen as the exemplar of this dialectic process of discernment and decision-making, of self-reflection and reaffirmation, of self-examination and self-definition but Abraham. Yes, Abraham, even though there is not a single clue in the Torah that Abraham is the epitome of introspection and has given himself over to self-examination in order to acquire the power of positive thinking. In any case, why should the means of self-examination be equated with some duty to “know thyself.” And where do we read in the text, Lech L’Cha that we have such a duty, presuming, of course, that we know what such a duty means.

In the American Protestant tradition, know thyself is equated with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea that knowing thyself is getting in touch with the God within. In fact, Emerson wrote a poem named by the Greek phrase, “Know Thyself.”  In this belief, knowing oneself is knowing the God who lives within each of us and takes a unique form and expression. The one God has an infinite number of variations in articulating the truth and we express that truth when we are true to ourselves, true to who we are meant to be.

However, the least acquaintance with Greek philosophy and literature instructs us that know thyself has as many interpretations as the phrase is meant to have expressions. For example, know thyself might be equated with moderation in all things rather than trusting our instincts because our instincts and passions might lead us to excess. When Oceanus advised Prometheus in Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound, knowing thyself meant knowing one’s limitations, recognizing boundaries and locating oneself in the world’s great order.

Socrates, of course, is the one most identified with the advice to adopt discernment with the slogan, “Know thyself.” But even for Socrates, the phrase was viewed as equivocal even by Plato, his foremost interpreter. In the dialogue Charmides, for Critias, it meant moderation and knowing your place in the world. In Phaedrus, however, the message is “don’t waste your time.” Concentrate on what is of value and do not get caught up in playing video games. In Protagoras, the maxim suggests spending one’s life in self-examination rather than in deeds and actions, that is, figuring out what “know thyself” means. In Philebus it seems to mean that in order to understand another, which is the goal, one needs to first understand oneself.

Know thyself may mean do not be intimidated by parents or peers to doing what is not best for you and your self-development. Especially, do not be a slave of the opinions of the mob. In contrast, Thomas Hobbes thought that knowing the other, knowing how all humans fundamentally behaved, was the best route to knowing oneself.  In Alexander Pope’s words, the proper study of oneself is to study mankind.

If one is a contemporary member of the Republican Party, “Know thyself” may mean knowing the group to which you belong and the group to which you must appeal to win their votes and get elected. Business, fiscal and social conservatives, white male working class former Democrats, iconoclastic anarchists, and then whom you need to add on to get a majority. Knowing thyself and being true to oneself is simply knowing the best vehicle to achieve victory.

The problem is that even if we could settle on one of those meanings, Abraham seems to be least identifiable with any of them. His is a journey into the unknown. He is not one who defines his destiny and works out the best route to achieve it. How are you to become a father, not of one nation, but of nations? How are you as a man married to a barren woman to become the father of multitudes? But there is not even an indication that Abraham is even capable of articulating such questions let alone answer them. He may be called to a greater purpose, but this result is seen as a result of God’s efforts and following God’s instructions rather than determining in advance by yourself who you want to be and how you must become the person.

Is heeding your call knowing yourself? I suggest not in this case. For Abraham, whether in dealing with threats to himself and to Sarah, whether in relationship with his nephew Lot, whether handling or mishandling the relationship between his concubine and his wife, and then, most of all, in following the instructions by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, there may be, as Kierkegaard claimed, an expression of absolute faith, but there is little if anything to indicate self-critical acumen.

Further, even if the lesson is heeding one’s call as a stretch in the interpretation of knowing thyself, his is not a hero’s journey, for Abraham seems to exhibit more cowardice than bravery. There is not even an indication that he did or even could calculate the route from Ur to Canaan because scholars cannot even figure out the route he traveled, certainly not if that route was to be as direct as possible.

Finally, if the lesson of Lech L’Cha is to know thyself, who is the self one is to know, that of Abram or Abraham? The very change of name seems to indicate that there is no essence to Abraham but that, through God’s dubbing him with a new name, he is to be resurrected as a different person. Abraham isn’t someone who becomes what he truly in essence was, but one who becomes who he shall be. He has the essence of divinity, if that can be called an essence without contradiction, for he, like God, shall be who he shall be. His journey is not only a trip into the unknown but the journey is made to discover who he should be and is not taken because he knows who he must become. It is a voyage of self-discovery.

Further, for a religion that insists we must remain in touch with our past, the lesson of Abraham is that one realizes oneself by jettisoning all connections to that past and charting a new course. It is finding a new home in a new place with all the perils that entails. And unlike the voyage of Ulysses, it is not one from which he will return in ten years. There is no return.

That also may mean that the Torah itself is not a guide to the perplexed but itself a voyage of discovery, a voyage that reveals a God, not of perfection, not an all-knowing God, not an all-powerful God, but a God who reinvents Himself as He responds to what He does and what He learns. Meaning and purpose are not predefined but defined by the voyage itself. For a religion that teaches us to honour thy father and thy mother, the story of our foremost forefather is a tale of a man who abandons his father and trades him in for a new, a non-earthly father who lacks any material substance. God says, “Go forth,” and Abraham and Sarah go forth without questioning the choice of location or the reason that they should become refugees from the land of their father whom they will never set eyes upon again. There is no indication that Abraham’s father supported him in taking the trip and every reason to believe he would have opposed it.

Abraham is promised that he will become a father of many nations and, more significantly, that he will have many children. But why would Abraham accept either wild proposition as true, especially the latter when his wife was barren and seemingly very unlikely to bear a child? Is that simple acceptance a sign of being governed by the maxim, “Know thyself”?

Abraham and his progeny should become a nation. That is the promise and the imperative however incredible it is. However, what that means is that Abraham does not have a national identity. Identity is not a given but a discovery, initially with Abraham as a person, and subsequently a discovery of who we are as a nation and a debate over what that identity is and should be. Does the narrative even teach us that we ought to listen to our call even when we do not define our purpose but discover and refine it as we go along? It is not as if we were “meant to be” something, but that the meaning and destiny are discoveries and not points of departure.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Abraham as an Iconic Model: Lech L’Cha Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

I am surprised often by the interpretations of many rabbis of Torah texts. Lech L’Cha is particularly open to being treated as a Rorschach test in at least three ways. First, some rabbis believe that we have to have a clear purpose in life so that our decisions and skills, our aptitudes and interests, our talents and the benefits bestowed to us by our parents, are put to best use. These attributes are treated as resources that must be exploited with maximum efficiency. We are commanded to determine in advance and as soon as possible what really matters to us so that our blood, sweat and tears can be utilized to best achieve what we aspire to become.

That means that we must not only clarify and articulate our goals in life in advance of the decisions we make, but we must develop a methodology that allows us to determine which decisions are most in accord with our goals of self-development. For some, that means trusting our gut instincts. For others it means allowing ourselves to be guided by our conscience. For still others it means listening to the message God has for us. I could go on. Each rabbi who opts for instructing us to define the person we want to be in advance may offer a different methodology or mixture of methods.

For example, discernment can be named as the magic key. “Discernment is clarity. It is fine-tuning. It is guidance. It is trusting intuition over fear, listening to the gentle fluttering of longing and to the whispers of the soul. It is self-reliance. It is the utter denial of negativity and the commitment to positive thinking.” Simply put, it is a continuous sorting out of our priorities and our decisions, in this case, by means of our intuition. Instead of reliance on God’s word and God’s instructions, self-reliance is advertised. The surprise comes when this process of self-actualization is equated with making the world a better place, “safer and more compassionate,” even though ego-centric methods have often been criticized for failing to recognize our responsibility for mending the world.

Who is chosen as the exemplar of this dialectic process of discernment and decision-making, of self-reflection and reaffirmation, of self-examination and self-definition but Abraham. Yes, Abraham, even though there is not a single clue in the Torah that Abraham is the epitome of introspection and has given himself over to self-examination in order to acquire the power of positive thinking. In any case, why should the means of self-examination be equated with some duty to “know thyself.” And where do we read in the text, Lech L’Cha that we have such a duty, presuming, of course, that we know what such a duty means.

In the American Protestant tradition, know thyself is equated with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea that knowing thyself is getting in touch with the God within. In fact, Emerson wrote a poem named by the Greek phrase, “Know Thyself.”  In this belief, knowing oneself is knowing the God who lives within each of us and takes a unique form and expression. The one God has an infinite number of variations in articulating the truth and we express that truth when we are true to ourselves, true to who we are meant to be.

However, the least acquaintance with Greek philosophy and literature instructs us that know thyself has as many interpretations as the phrase is meant to have expressions. For example, know thyself might be equated with moderation in all things rather than trusting our instincts because our instincts and passions might lead us to excess. When Oceanus advised Prometheus in Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound, knowing thyself meant knowing one’s limitations, recognizing boundaries and locating oneself in the world’s great order.

Socrates, of course, is the one most identified with the advice to adopt discernment with the slogan, “Know thyself.” But even for Socrates, the phrase was viewed as equivocal even by Plato, his foremost interpreter. In the dialogue Charmides, for Critias, it meant moderation and knowing your place in the world. In Phaedrus, however, the message is “don’t waste your time.” Concentrate on what is of value and do not get caught up in playing video games. In Protagoras, the maxim suggests spending one’s life in self-examination rather than in deeds and actions, that is, figuring out what “know thyself” means. In Philebus it seems to mean that in order to understand another, which is the goal, one needs to first understand oneself.

Know thyself may mean do not be intimidated by parents or peers to doing what is not best for you and your self-development. Especially, do not be a slave of the opinions of the mob. In contrast, Thomas Hobbes thought that knowing the other, knowing how all humans fundamentally behaved, was the best route to knowing oneself.  In Alexander Pope’s words, the proper study of oneself is to study mankind.

If one is a contemporary member of the Republican Party, “Know thyself” may mean knowing the group to which you belong and the group to which you must appeal to win their votes and get elected. Business, fiscal and social conservatives, white male working class former Democrats, iconoclastic anarchists, and then whom you need to add on to get a majority. Knowing thyself and being true to oneself is simply knowing the best vehicle to achieve victory.

The problem is that even if we could settle on one of those meanings, Abraham seems to be least identifiable with any of them. His is a journey into the unknown. He is not one who defines his destiny and works out the best route to achieve it. How are you to become a father, not of one nation, but of nations? How are you as a man married to a barren woman to become the father of multitudes? But there is not even an indication that Abraham is even capable of articulating such questions let alone answer them. He may be called to a greater purpose, but this result is seen as a result of God’s efforts and following God’s instructions rather than determining in advance by yourself who you want to be and how you must become the person.

Is heeding your call knowing yourself? I suggest not in this case. For Abraham, whether in dealing with threats to himself and to Sarah, whether in relationship with his nephew Lot, whether handling or mishandling the relationship between his concubine and his wife, and then, most of all, in following the instructions by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, there may be, as Kierkegaard claimed, an expression of absolute faith, but there is little if anything to indicate self-critical acumen.

Further, even if the lesson is heeding one’s call as a stretch in the interpretation of knowing thyself, his is not a hero’s journey, for Abraham seems to exhibit more cowardice than bravery. There is not even an indication that he did or even could calculate the route from Ur to Canaan because scholars cannot even figure out the route he traveled, certainly not if that route was to be as direct as possible.

Finally, if the lesson of Lech L’Cha is to know thyself, who is the self one is to know, that of Abram or Abraham? The very change of name seems to indicate that there is no essence to Abraham but that, through God’s dubbing him with a new name, he is to be resurrected as a different person. Abraham isn’t someone who becomes what he truly in essence was, but one who becomes who he shall be. He has the essence of divinity, if that can be called an essence without contradiction, for he, like God, shall be who he shall be. His journey is not only a trip into the unknown but the journey is made to discover who he should be and is not taken because he knows who he must become. It is a voyage of self-discovery.

Further, for a religion that insists we must remain in touch with our past, the lesson of Abraham is that one realizes oneself by jettisoning all connections to that past and charting a new course. It is finding a new home in a new place with all the perils that entails. And unlike the voyage of Ulysses, it is not one from which he will return in ten years. There is no return.

That also may mean that the Torah itself is not a guide to the perplexed but itself a voyage of discovery, a voyage that reveals a God, not of perfection, not an all-knowing God, not an all-powerful God, but a God who reinvents Himself as He responds to what He does and what He learns. Meaning and purpose are not predefined but defined by the voyage itself. For a religion that teaches us to honour thy father and thy mother, the story of our foremost forefather is a tale of a man who abandons his father and trades him in for a new, a non-earthly father who lacks any material substance. God says, “Go forth,” and Abraham and Sarah go forth without questioning the choice of location or the reason that they should become refugees from the land of their father whom they will never set eyes upon again. There is no indication that Abraham’s father supported him in taking the trip and every reason to believe he would have opposed it.

Abraham is promised that he will become a father of many nations and, more significantly, that he will have many children. But why would Abraham accept either wild proposition as true, especially the latter when his wife was barren and seemingly very unlikely to bear a child? Is that simple acceptance a sign of being governed by the maxim, “Know thyself”?

Abraham and his progeny should become a nation. That is the promise and the imperative however incredible it is. However, what that means is that Abraham does not have a national identity. Identity is not a given but a discovery, initially with Abraham as a person, and subsequently a discovery of who we are as a nation and a debate over what that identity is and should be. Does the narrative even teach us that we ought to listen to our call even when we do not define our purpose but discover and refine it as we go along? It is not as if we were “meant to be” something, but that the meaning and destiny are discoveries and not points of departure.

Part IV: JSpace – Defending Israel and J’Accuse

In the morning of the first full day of the JSpace biennial conference this past weekend, we heard an opening address by Galit Baram, the Israeli Consul-General in Toronto, Bob Rae, former Premier of Ontario and interim head of the Liberal Party; both offered qualitative talks. Bob Brym, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and Rabbi Uri Regev, an advocate of religious liberty in Israel and CEO of an educational-advocacy group, Hiddush, gave very different quantitative talks on stats in Canada and in Israel respectively. Qualitative talks from an Israeli and a Canadian and quantitative talks from another Israeli and another Canadian – this is called balanced programming. Especially when it was complemented by a video address from Dr. Hussein Ibish who had to cancel at the last moment because of a health problem in his family. Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington as well as a weekly columnist for Bloomberg and The National.

Galit Baram, as a highly regarded and experienced Israeli diplomat with a Master’s Degree in American Studies, is well known to Canadians and also well known for her ardent opposition to the BDS movement and would never attend a JSpace meeting if it directly or indirectly supported BDS. Her talk, however, addressed the regional and international context in which Israel currently finds itself. Iran came up first for obvious reasons. The current Iranian regime is committed to Israel’s destruction and purgation from the Middle East. But Iran is also a threat to Arab regimes in the Middle East and a prime sponsor of terrorism, creating a congruence of interests between those regimes and Israel As she zoomed from a quick summary of the status of the peace agreements between Israel and both Egypt and Jordan into the more proximate situation of the Palestinian-Israeli situation and, more specifically, the negotiations based on land for peace, she did not pronounce those negotiations as brain dead as I did.

However, she might as well have. For there continues to be a sustained program of demonizing Israel and assault on Israel’s human rights record when, compared to any country in the region. Israel stands head over heels higher than any other country in the region on human rights issues, LGPTQ most specifically. There is, in reality, no country in the Middle East that comes close to Israel’s record for defending and upholding human rights. Though mouthed by an Israeli diplomat, no reasonably objective observer could argue with her on this topic. At the same time, Israel faces missiles from Gaza, stabbing and ramming attacks to create a context in which Israelis are not only reluctant to offer further concessions even as they see light at the end of the tunnel, not through the political process, but through civil society cooperation in such areas as sports, education and culture.

Baram also addressed the issue of equality for Palestinian-Israeli citizens or Arab Israelis and was optimistic given the increasing numbers of Palestinian doctors and lawyers and the recent requests for cooperation with the Israeli police to stamp out violence in Arab villages and towns. Given the record tourism to Israel, the stellar performance of the hi-tech sector and the open arena for debate and discussion in Israel, she painted an optimistic picture of Israel in spite of her initial remarks about the dangers from Iran. What I found interesting was her omission of any discussion of Israeli-American relations, of the embassy issue or of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.

Bob Rae directly addressed the issue of progressivism related to liberalism, both concerned with the disempowered and alienated in society. More specifically, he zeroed in on a liberal definition of democracy in terms of minority rights rather than majoritarian rule, in terms of upholding the rule of law as distinct from arousing populist passions. In that context, he complemented Baram’s position on the international efforts to demonize Israel unjustly. Rae specifically cited two widespread myths about Israel, first that its problems were insoluble and everlasting and, second, that Israel could survive and thrive without some adult supervision of the region, increasingly absent with the retreat of Trump’s America from that role in the Middle East. As was the case for Baram, Rae saw a sphere of agreement open between the Israelis and the Palestinians and believed that the conflict could be managed though not resolved. But that required consequentialist calculations rather than the impulsive “thinking” and reactions of populists like Donald Trump.

Ibish made the point that Israel was no different than any other state in the region for those states were all multi-cultural and multi-ethnic with different internal mixtures and internal conflicts. Politics required the creation of a context in which all these various peoples could live together in peace. The position that there was no answer to the Palestinian-Israel conflict would mean that there are no answers to similar conflicts in the rest of the Middle East and around the world. At the same time, a growing belief among Israelis that they could now ignore the Palestinian issue now that the situation had become relatively quiescent had to be debunked. For as long as Palestinians lacked citizenship in a state, Israel would never be able to settle into a regular status in the Middle East.

On the other hand, Ibish declared the traditional, not any, two-state solution as dead. It was no longer available. Yet there was no other solution but a two-state one that recognized self-determination for both peoples. As he envisaged it, not only for Israel but for Iraq and Syria, the vision of a uniform powerful state based on the exclusive predominance of one ethnic group was also dead and Middle Eastern countries would have to envision more decentralized forms of government. That decentralization would have to be radical. Though he could not specify its character in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or define a process for reaching it, he envisaged a peace process in which Palestinians and Jewish Israelis would each have their own state, but there would be joint governance at a higher political level than that of each of the two states for reconciling the needs and interests of both parties.

Bob Brym shifted the focus to Canada and attacked some very different myths based on his 2018 survey of Canadian Jews (2018 Survey of Jews in Canada  

https://www.environicsinstitute.org/docs/default-source/project-documents/2018-survey-of-jews-in-canada/2018-survey-of-jews-in-canada—final-report.pdf?sfvrsn=2994ef6_2 Robert Brym, Keith Neuman and Rhonda Lenton) The survey was a joint enterprise of Environics Institute for Survey Research, the University of Toronto and York University.

Brym said that the survey addressed issues of identity, values, opinions and experiences of Jews in Canada. He unequivocally claimed that, contrary to a great deal of popular belief, Canadian Jews were not more conservative than their American counterparts in their approach to Israel. Though he noted in his report that these questions received the least attention in Canada by scholars compared the extensive studies in the USA and UK, this survey was an effort to remedy that situation. One result: the destruction of a number of myths about Canadian Jews. For example, contrary to widespread belief, Canadian Jews are not more conservative than those in the U.S. As an illustration, a similar majority of Canadian Jews were critical of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. The comparisons were made easier because the Canadian survey closely followed one by the 2013 Pew Survey of American Jews.

As one radical shift – while once Canadian Jewish practice of religion almost exclusively defined a Jewish identity, this was no longer the case as only one in three Canadian Jews consider religion as central to their identity. Only 6 in 10 believe even in God or a universal spirit. Jewish identity is now about culture and ethnicity as well as religion. Surprisingly, these ratios are more or less consistent across generations.

However, Canadian Jews do differ from American Jews in a number of respects. The community is more cohesive. Intermarriage is far more common in the U.S. The ability to read and/or speak Hebrew is more widespread in Canada as is visiting Israel. However, the Vancouver Jewish community more closely resembles the characteristics of the Jewish community in the USA. These are important differences given that the Jewish community in Canada is approaching or is already the second largest diaspora community in the world.

An interest in Israel occupies only a central rung in the ladder of concerns for Canadian Jews. The top rungs include leading a moral and ethical life, remembering the Holocaust and celebrating Jewish holidays. Only 4 in 10 believe that caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish. However, “almost half (48%) of Jews in Canada say they are very emotionally attached to Israel.” Three in ten are somewhat attached, the same figure for Americans, But only 3 in 10 Americans are very attached.

More importantly, on this issue, there is a distinct difference according to age – younger Canadian Jews are less likely to consider that caring about Israel is an essential feature of their Jewish identity. However, on an even lower rung is Jewish observance and attending synagogue, but in America, Jews are half as likely to belong to a synagogue compared to Canadians. Only half of American Jews, compared to 80% in Canada, make financial contributions to a Jewish organization.

Brym in his talk concentrated on the link between Canadian Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel. As he wrote in his report, “Canadian Jews have a strong connection to Israel.” A large majority express an emotional attachment and have spent time in the country. Eight in ten have visited Israel at least once and four in ten have been there at least three times. Of these, one in five (20%) report having lived in Israel for six months or more, so 16% of all adult Jews have lived in Israel for at least a half year. Travel to Israel is most prevalent among Jews who are Orthodox/Modern Orthodox, but the attachment is common across the population, especially among Jews under 45 years of age and those with a post-graduate degree.

However, deep political divisions exist among Canadian Jews over Israel. Only a plurality, not a majority, endorse the Canadian government support for Israel. But it is not clear whether this failure of support was because the government was not critical enough about Israeli government actions or too critical. The young and more liberal-minded (Reform, Reconstructionist) are more critical of the settlements, but only a minority regard settlements as illegal. Liberal Jews place greater blame on the Israeli government for failing to negotiate with the Palestinians. That is also an indicator of a breach with the differences among Israeli Jews. For they are less likely to see the settlements as the barrier to a peace agreement.

The bottom line for Brym is that progressives could envision a great deal of room for growth among younger and more liberally-minded religious Jews. Further, Jewish youth were not more alienated, but wanted a greater connection with their identity, though 3 in 10 do not give voice to their criticisms. One area of criticism is Israel’s absence of freedom of religion.

The declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel
passed on 14 May 1948 declared that the state “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion (my italics), conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Israel fails to meet this standard and, in effect, earns a grade of 0 in the realm of freedom of religion, particularly in the discrimination against Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and other liberal Jewish streams. It especially discriminates against secular Jews.

To be recognized by the state currently, all marriage ceremonies must be conducted by religious authorities of state-recognized religious communities to which both members of the couple belong. Jewish Israelis can only legally marry through the Chief Rabbinate, while the religious authorities for the Christian, Druze and Muslim populations regulate the rites of marriage and divorce in their respective communities. Israel does not have a legal framework for civil marriage or divorce, same-sex unions, marriage between two individuals who belong to different religions or for marriage when either of the two partners is registered as “having no religion.” Israel lacks marriage freedom because of the extortion of the Jewish Orthodox.

Rabbi Uri Regev, as an advocate of religious liberty and religious pluralism, as a lawyer who, among his Supreme Court victories, got the Supreme Court to recognize Conservative and Reform conversions performed abroad, roots his campaigns for religious liberty on the above Declaration as well as on the following statistics, most taken from the 2019 Israel Religion & State Index and post-election survey and an earlier 2016 survey:

·       84% Adult Israeli Jews support religious freedom and equality of civic burden;
·       74% oppose government’s activities in religion-state;
·       63% want a civil coalition, which does not depend on the ultra-Orthodox parties and advances religious freedom and equality;
·       64% support equal status for the non-Orthodox Jewish streams and Diaspora Jewish engagement in advancing religious freedom and equality in Israel;
·       78% of Jewish Israelis want businesses open on Shabbat;
·       72% of Jewish Israelis (95% secular Jews and 67% traditional Jews) and 76% of Arab Israelis support the statement that “every resident [of Israel] has the right to get married in Israel with whomever he chooses, in whatever way he chooses, and according to his beliefs;”
·       only 43% of the Arab-Israeli public support allowing civil marriage and divorce in Israel;
·       if the State of Israel were to institute civil marriage along with religious marriage, 31% of Jewish respondents would prefer to be married in civil marriage ceremonies and 60% would prefer to be married in religious marriage ceremonies;
·       50 % of the Jewish sector and 57% of the Arab sector oppose marriages between Jews and Arabs;
·       84% Adult Israeli Jews support religious freedom and equality of civic burden;
·       74% oppose government’s activities in religion-state;
·       63% want a civil coalition, which does not depend on the ultra-Orthodox parties and advances religious freedom and equality;
·       64% support equal status for the non-Orthodox Jewish streams and Diaspora Jewish engagement in advancing religious freedom and equality in Israel;
·       78% of Jewish Israelis want businesses open on Shabbat;
·       72% of Jewish Israelis (95% secular Jews and 67% traditional Jews) and 76% of Arab Israelis support the statement that “every resident [of Israel] has the right to get married in Israel with whomever he chooses, in whatever way he chooses, and according to his beliefs;”
·       only 43% of the Arab-Israeli public support allowing civil marriage and divorce in Israel;
·       if the State of Israel were to institute civil marriage along with religious marriage, 31% of Jewish respondents would prefer to be married in civil marriage ceremonies and 60% would prefer to be married in religious marriage ceremonies;
·       50 % of the Jewish sector and 57% of the Arab sector oppose marriages between Jews and Arabs;
  • only 14% of Jews and 16% of Arabs would support such marriages if one of the partners converted;
  • 72% of ultra-Orthodox and 62% of Orthodox view Arab citizens as a danger to the state;
  • while 58% of secular and liberal Jews oppose the expulsions of Arab citizens, a majority of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox support expulsion.

Not only is there no freedom of religion in Israel, but the intolerance of others extends to the political arena and the equal status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.

Part III: Reflections on JSpace

Peter Beinart is another very well-known activist and writer who appeared on the initial panel. A Rhodes Scholar and former editor of The New Republic, he is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at City University in New York, a senior columnist for Haaretz, a CNN regular, and writes for The Atlantic and a plethora of other publications. In his writing and his commentaries, he has been preoccupied with America’s abetting of the Israeli occupation and the settlements in the West Bank as well as the rise of ethno-nationalism around the world. As he proudly states, he attends an Orthodox shul with a mechitzah (a partition dividing men and women during a service) and sends his kids to a Jewish day school – “my children go to Jewish day school and Judaism is the center of my life.” In 2012, he wrote a very controversial article advocating support of a boycott of the settlements. I have commented occasionally on some of his writing in my blogs.

In his opening remarks, he lamented the support of the organized Jewish community for Trump’s actions on Israel and expressed the conviction that the greatest danger to Israel and the Jewish people came from the alignment of Netanyahu with new “partners,” the new autocratic leaders of Hungary and Brazil and numerous other states. Jews would, in the end, he believed suffer from the bitter fruit of the oppression unleashed by these populist leaders. The flirtation with ethnic nationalists led directly to the Pittsburgh shooting since the original objects of hatred of the killer were illegal migrants whom Trump had assailed. And it was only a short step to characterizing Jews as the organizers of the caravans of Central Americans trying to cross the US/Mexican border. The denigration of Palestinians in Israel, he opined, was parallel to the marginalization of minorities by Trump and his acolytes.

If you read Peter even infrequently, you will find that his current obsession, as with many if not most American journalists, is with the Trump phenomenon, a Trump who ridiculously wants to buy Greenland while engaging in other embarrassing actions, most of which run against American interests, as in the withdrawal from Syria. He follows the Democratic Party race for the presidential nomination and current American foreign affairs, much more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump and the GOP both now wallow in paranoia even though they are in power. I cannot recall if he ever called Trump a racist, as I have done, but he has certainly written about Trump stressing race, ethnicity and religion rather than citizenship and civic values at the same time as the GOP insists that nothing is racist. Beinart seems to cheer the new shift to the left of the Democratic Party indicated by Nancy Pelosi’s launch of the impeachment inquiry and the initial seeming preference for inspiration over caution.

Again, if you follow Peter’s writings, it is evident that he is profoundly moved by the plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank. I have been to the West Bank many times and dealt with Palestinians but never had the same response he did. That may be because I have spent a great deal of time in different refugee camps around the world. “(T)he first time I [Peter Beinart] went to the West Bank it was a shattering experience. The only thing I could imagine that could be similar for an American would be going to visit the Jim Crow South. When you see people living under the control of the state with no rights and they can not become citizens or vote for the control of the state that controls their lives, they do not have free movement, the need a pass to move from city to city, and they live under a military legal system. The consequences are more brutal than we could imagine sitting here.” For Beinart, the real core issue seems sometimes to be Palestinian self-determination and, at other times, “the absolute denial of human

[individual versus collective]

rights.” I believe he views the two as inter-dependent.

In my talk with Peter afterwards, he saw no hope for peace coming from within Israel alone, but viewed peace between the Israelis and Palestinians as only possible if the U.S. Government used its economic and political leverage to pressure the Israelis. But what about the Palestinians? For most Jewish Israelis, in spite of the criticisms of Netanyahu, are distrustful of Palestinian intentions given the past record that I summarized in yesterday’s blog, the belief is that Palestinian rejectionism goes very deep. Beinart did not tackle that issue.

Raja Khouri spoke second. He is the Founding President of the Canadian Arab Institute, an Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, a member of Human Rights Watch Canada, and co-founder of the Canadian Arab/Jewish Leadership Dialogue Group. Though born in Lebanon and identified as an Arab-Canadian, he refers to himself as a Palestinian. He is a strong believer in dialogue. He champions diversity and inclusion, cultural bridge-building and human rights. He is opposed to the use of violence as a tactic. He tried to communicate why Palestinians in the diaspora were understandably frustrated with the Jewish community when the Jewish establishment appeared as such uncritical supporters of Netanyahu’s policies.

His two stumbles in his presentation were instructive. Raja supported the right of Canadians to boycott Israeli products produced in the West Bank and deplored the efforts and pressure the established Jewish community brought against the LCBO, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, to reverse its stand on rejecting wines produced in the West Bank as being labeled “Made in Israel.”

The first stumble occurred when he failed to distinguish between the right to boycott, and, more specifically, the right to boycott products produced in the West Bank but labeled “Made in Israel,” versus support for BDS. He asked whether members of the audience regarded BDS as antisemitic. Perhaps a dozen people raised their hand, though I suspect that belief was more widespread. No one offered a follow-up question about his identification of the right to boycott mis-labeled products from the West Bank and the efforts of BDS, which many commentators view as using the boycott simply to demonize Israel. Unfortunately, as with many panels, time ran out before anyone could probe this issue deeper.

The other stumble took place when he seemed to say that he was not anti-Israel but pro-Palestinian and was a supporter of a two-state solution, but refused to acknowledge and respect Israel given its pattern of behaviour. I was left with the impression, which I was unable to clarify in my discussion afterwards with him, that he accepted the reality of Israel’s existence but not its right to exist. He did not seem aware – at least this was my first impression, subject to correction – that many Jewish Zionists would regard him and his position as certainly liberal and fair, but also untrustworthy and without any depth of respect for Israel as a Zionist entity.

Shaqued Morag at 33 is the new current Executive Director of Peace Now. She was the third person on the panel. When I read about her before the conference, I thought she would speak about the effect of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian children, a core concern. However, on the panel, she was most preoccupied with “creeping annexation” of the West Bank when I am sure that she would be the first to say that it was not creeping but was storming ahead. For as Peter Beinart said in the discussion that followed the opening remarks, refusing to give Palestinians living in Area C building permits while expanding Jewish settlements is not simply creeping annexation, but simply a prologue to a program of annexation. However, in the slogan, “Choose Peace over land,” was she advocating removal of 450,000 settlers? Did this partially explain why Meretz had been reduced to a leftist rump?

As usual, the panel turned into an exercise in frustration as follow-ups were limited and I never found an opening to speak to her personally. I must say that, whatever her position on any matter, and whether I agreed or disagreed, she was dynamic without engaging in any demagoguery, was very clear thinking and articulate with very strong convictions but ones articulated with modesty and restraint. She will make both a strong impression as a lobbyist in the Knesset and an articulate and warm voice to reaffirm Peace Now’s position as a broad-based movement. She is clearly a strategic thinker and we will hear much more from her in the future.  For that discovery alone, it was worth hearing her.

The questions I was left with on which I hoped to get further clarification:

  1. Are Canadian Jews complicit in “creeping annexation”?
  2. If you believe in self-determination and independence, how can you endorse U.S. pressure as the mechanism to move Israel into a peace mode?
  3. Why is Israel characterized as the main, if not exclusive, obstacle to peace?
  4. Given the record of the past thirty years, how can dialogue and education be regarded as the major if not exclusive paths to peace, especially when the text books in Palestinian schools are so virulently anti-Israel and anti-Zionist?

If, as Raja Khouri cited, 72% of Israelis support an unequal status for Israeli Palestinians, what is the real chance of Israel becoming a truly democratic state with full and equal rights for its Palestinian citizens?