Pope Alexander VI offered
sanctuary to Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, from Portugal in 1497 and from
Provence in 1498. Jews were given protection by King Ferdinand I of Naples.
They were also offered protection in Tuscany. Except for the Jews in Sicily,
then under the thumb of the Spanish monarchy, the Jews otherwise thrived until
two Jewish apostates denounced the Talmud in the sixteenth century and on Yom
Kippur of 1553, all copies of the Talmud in the Italian Papal States were
burned. Pius IV and Paul IV persecuted the Jews of the Papal States from which
they were eventually expelled. However, under Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590), the
position of the Jews in Italy improved greatly. They were permitted to live in
any part of the Papal States and to offer medical treatment to gentiles.
The situation of the Jews in the Papal States was soon reversed. Gregory
XIV succeeded Pope Sixtus in 1592, but died almost immediately. He was replaced
by Clement VIII who renewed the anti-Jewish bulls of Pius IV and Paul IV. Jews fled and
were received and welcomed by Duke Ferdinand del Medici of Tuscany.
At the beginning of the
seventeenth century, there were then many Jews in Tuscany and Vienna with whom
Galileo could have had interchanges rather than a Jewish doctor far away in
Hamburg. However, though many Jews were physicians and some were scientists and
mathematicians, Jews in general in the seventeenth century were not particularly
notable for their scientific achievements, in stark contrast with the twentieth
and twenty-first centuries where they form a very disproportionate role in
those activities and an even greater disproportion of winners of Nobel prizes.
Jews then had the same
genes, perhaps even a greater drive, than contemporary Jews in North America,
but their religious beliefs at the time, no less than that of Roman Catholics,
meant they were more wedded to the Aristotelian beliefs of Maimonides just as
the RCs were to Saint Thomas Aquinas. Further, even in comparison to the
Medieval Period, Jewish intellectual life was “relatively isolated and inner-directed”
(Ruderman, ch. 2), largely disconnected from the then current thinking and literary
tastes of the outside world in the seventeenth century – with the exception of
the intellectual, professional and mercantilist elite.
On the other hand, discord
with Jews was least in the universities in the city-states of Italy. The
University of Padua was a case in point. It was critical to developing the
medical and, to some degree, scientific and mathematical communities of Italy. Galileo
claimed that his time in Padua, with its fellowship and tolerance, was the
happiest period of his life. After a short stint at the University of Pisa, Galileo
celebrated his academic appointment in 1592 to Padua, the institution where he had
first enrolled as a student in 1581. Soon after his appointment, he invented
Nathan, the son of the famous Solomon of Udine who had achieved great status as the Turkish ambassador to Venice, was one of the first Jewish students at the University of Padua in the latter part of the sixteenth century. The University of Padua subsequently became the mecca for Jews with the means and fortitude to travel from the other side of the Alps to attend this centre of higher learning renowned for its amazing intellectual stimulation – it was the Princeton of its time. There was no quota limiting Jews and they flocked there, particularly to the Faculty of Medicine.
The Padua synagogue with
its majestic bimah and Torah Ark on the opposite wall was built in 1584 in the
historic ghetto. It survived the fascists because they destroyed the modern
synagogue that replaced this restored one that had been abandoned. Today, there
are still 45,000 Jews living in Padua. A few families hidden by Italians trace
their roots in Italy back two millennia.
In Padua, Galileo
hobnobbed with the elite and with the creative, religious and intellectual leaders
of his time. But Padua lacked an elite wealthy Jewish mercantilist class. Galileo
served the Christian elite, initially as a consultant on navigation and
ship-building based on his knowledge of mathematics and physics. It was at
Padua that he won the patent for his irrigation device based on his own
theories of gravitation. He also happened to be an electrifying lecturer. But
it was also in Padua that he, along with two friends who died, contracted probably
what we now call legionnaire’s disease; Galileo suffered for the rest of his life
from the after-effects. It was also in Padua that his mistress gave birth to
his first “illegitimate” daughter in 1600, the very same year that Giordano
Bruno was burned at the stake.
I have no knowledge of
Galileo meeting Rabbi Judah Assael del Bene who was also a renowned scientist
in Padua, but who was very much younger than Galileo. Nor even earlier of any meeting
with Joseph Hamiz, who had graduated in medicine from the University of Padua
in 1624. Like Bruno, Hamiz became fascinated with Kabbalah and eventually
endorsed Shabbatai Zevi as the messiah. Undoubtedly, both del Bene and Hamiz knew
of Galileo. Yet as eminent as all these Jews were, they did not fully embrace the
new science. While also rebelling against the rationalism of Aristotle, they did
so often by reverting to older religious-philosophical beliefs rooted in Plato
and Jewish mysticism that would give birth to Hasidism.
This was my main reason
for beginning with Galileo. For as a, if not the, leading figure of the new
science, there was no indication that he dealt with Jews as anything other than
equal humans. As his brilliant and sensitive daughter, Maria Celeste (as I
wrote above, born in 1600, the same year that Gordano Bruno was burned at the
stake) echoed his views in a 1623 letter: “we are all of us here on Earth like
strangers and wayfarers, who soon will be bound for our new homeland in Heaven,
where there is perfect happiness.” But while in graduate school, I had been taught
that there was a reason for why Galileo could be tried by the inquisition and
renounce his beliefs; those beliefs would stand as the truth in spite of such a
renunciation. In contrast, Bruno had to die for his truth and could not renounce
his beliefs, for his truth was ultimately subjective and depended on his
commitment to it to establish the validity of his convictions.
However, this is a false
story. Galileo never retracted his beliefs. (This is a controversial statement
which I will defend in much greater detail in my concluding blog.) Given his significant
improvements of the telescope that had just been invented and the proofs he
offered, both mathematical, experimental and visual, Galileo continued to
support the Copernican sun-centred system of the world. However, he edited what
he claimed about them and agreed to define them as hypotheses rather than ultimate
truth after his first 1616 trial by the Inquisitional Court, but he never
withdrew his claims for the veracity of the theory. The contrast between Bruno
and Galileo that I was taught as a student was offered to radically differentiate
science and religion, to define science as concerned with objectivity while
religion was concerned with faith and subjective conviction. The problem is
that Galileo did not share this dichotomous division.
Galileo was a religious
Roman Catholic. He commented on biblical texts and tried to show the text was
compatible with the new science. He clashed with those in power who claimed one,
and only one, divinely authorized interpretation, namely the one prescribed by institutionalized
power. Religious belief and belief in the nature of the cosmos were both
subject to objective analysis. Therefore, I chose Galileo to begin with, not so
much, in fact, not at all, because he had an opinion of Jews per se. He had
none. They were simply other humans with different practices. Galileo was not
only a pioneer in the new science, but a pioneer in the new approach to
religion as well. This and his scientific and mathematical achievements
provided a model for Jews who wanted to retain their Judaism but also live in
the modern world.
One final note. Lest
readers be left with the impression that all Jews at that time were caught up
in a romanticized throwback version of science, many Jews, many illustrious
Jews, were not. But they tended to follow the illustrious non-Jewish mathematicians
of the first half of the seventeenth century. For example, the renowned Venetian
mathematician and scientist, Simone Luzzatto (1583-1663), was himself a famous rabbi
in the Venetian ghetto. He believed in human reason. He concurred with Galileo’s
conclusions. But he also believed that reason could not attain its ultimate
goal without divine assistance. (Socrat) Reason in the study of nature
and religion served complementary rather than disjunctive functions.
In another area, he was ahead of Galileo. In 1638, four years before Galileo died, Luzzatto wrote a Discourse addressed to the leaders of the Venetian Republic as a radical break from the traditional fawning petitioning, that Galileo himself always used. In Luzzatto’s petition, he presumed equal rights as a citizen to other non-Jewish residents of Venice. It had important consequences on the development of the idea of separation of religion from politics so that a century-and-a-half later, in the founding of the American republic, religious liberty, and not just tolerance, became a founding ideal. (See the Letters between Moses Seixas and President George Washington.)
The Renaissance, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, the Scientific Revolution and the communication revolution as a result of the invention of moveable type, that all began or took place in the sixteenth century, altered the view of the world and impacted the lives of both Jews and Christians in Europe in the seventeenth century. In the spring, I gave a series of lectures on some greats in the sixteenth century transitional period between the medieval and the modern period and the relationship between these important figures and Jews and Judaism. How did the many different dimensions of those interactions play out in the seventeenth century?
As autumn comes to an end, I plan to give three more lectures (and write
corresponding blogs) on great figures of the seventeenth century and their
relationship to Jews. They include Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, Hugo Grotius,
Blaise Pascal, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Lurking in the background
throughout this survey will be Baruch Spinoza, a Jew ex-communicated from his
congregation in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century.
I begin with Galileo
Galilei. Why Galileo?
It could be personal. Galileo’s daughter, a cloistered nun in San
Matteo, on 18 October 1630, when her father was on the verge of publishing his
most famous book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World,
wrote her father a letter. In her pattern of self-renunciation and humility,
combined with her enormous respect and love for her father, she asked
rhetorically, “If you could teach me the secret you yourself employ, Sire, for
getting by on so little sleep, I would be most grateful.” (Sobel 199) I
identify with Galileo. He slept little. So do I.
Further, like myself he went to medical school for two years before he
shifted to mathematics and physics; I went on to study philosophy after two
years of medical school. Perhaps my choice of Galileo was because I identified
with him, not only for the few hours of sleep he enjoyed each night, but
because I have always been overwhelmed by his scientific achievements. In
addition, I identified with him because he disdained academic dress and
manners. When I first taught at Trinity College at the University of Toronto, I
was required to wear an academic gown. I did as I was required, but I used my
gown to erase the chalk marks I made on the blackboard. Galileo also “deemed
official doctoral dress a pretentious nuisance.” (Sobel 19)
Finally, it could be because some of his enemies spread rumours that Galileo was a Jew, a man from the Galil. The rumour was patently false and had no merit whatsoever, but we are well acquainted with “fake news” these days and false allegations that it was the Ukrainians, not the Russians, who interfered in the American 2016 elections.
Galileo’s Interactions with Jews
Galileo had some interaction with Jews. However, those contacts were infrequent and exceptional. For example, he did write a letter to the 17th century Jewish mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and physician, Jacob Rosales of Hamburg, one of the three Hanseatic cities. (The others were Danzig and Lűbeck.) Galileo had presumably met Rosales when the latter lived in Rome. They had much in common, but also a number of fundamental differences, both on science and religion. Rosales, for example,nseatic cities that included Danzig and Lbeck as well,Hanseatic cities also happened to be a Sebastianist, an exponent of political messianism.
A bit more on Rosales. Christened Imanuel Bocarro Francês in 1593 in
Lisbon, Rosales became an ex-Marrano who returned to Judaism after his escape
to Hamburg (1631-1652). Subsequently, he was denounced by the spy on the Sephardic
Jewish community throughout Europe, Semuel Aboab, alias Francisco Domingo de Guzmán, but
this informer to the inquisition operated between 1661-2, well after Galileo’s
death. When Galileo was in touch with Rosales, it was over a dispute between
modern science and Rosales’ commitment to traditional science and astrology.
Galileo admired Rosales for his proficiency in astrology, but was never
persuaded of its scientific bona fides.
Galileo himself dabbled in
astrology. Any physician trained in Europe at the time had to be an
accomplished astrologer, since doctors were then required to cast horoscopes in
order to see what the stars adumbrated of the patient’s life. Astrology was
intended to assist in diagnosis, in prescribing remedies and even in
understanding the causes of specific diseases. However, Galileo never took
astrology seriously. He engaged in it at the request of a patron, such as that
of Madama Christina when Grand Duke Ferdinando was ill, but he joked that
astrologers really only saw things in retrospect.
A plethora of Jewish
physicians lived in Hamburg and Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, many of
them mentored by the very illustrious Rodrigo de Castro, another Marrano who
reverted back to Judaism. In de Castro’s theory of plagues, those epidemics
were the result of the spread of extremely small organisms, a theory clearly in
advance of his time and the germ theory of disease established two centuries
later when it was determined that the plague resulted from microbes living in
and on rats; the fleas living on those rats spread the disease when a rat died
and the fleas migrated to another host.
At the time, although the
accumulation of dead rats adumbrated the arrival once again of the plague –
never as horrific as the fourteenth century when one-third of the population of
Europe died – the widespread belief was that the disease resulted from “swamp
air,” or, more often, a full moon in conjunction with specific positions of the
planets. Famine supposedly played a part. But it was the stellar conjunctions
that were used to trace the course of the disease and its treatment.
That was the supposedly
scientific side. On the irrational populist side, beggars and Jews were accused
of being responsible for the spread of the plague. Further, Galileo’s daughter
pronounced to her father that the plague resulted from insufficient prayer and
piety. Galileo himself, though he had observed microbes through his telescope,
never recognized even de Castro’s and Rosales’ early version of germ theory.
Rosales was more enamoured
with astrology as a guide to medical practice than any subscription to a
proto-germ theory. In fact, as Isaac Cordoso wrote on the death of Rosales’
only son at 17 years of age, “when his only son fell sick, the stars told him
he would be healthy and enjoy long life. But his son died at the age of 17,
because his father trusted more in the stars than in the mortal signs of danger
and in [the healing power of] medicines.” Christian physicians in Hamburg,
though also proficient in astrology, were more inclined to rely on bleeding and
medicines than astrology.
Galileo’s contact with
Rosales predated his move to Hamburg. Rosales had fled first fled from Lisbon to
Rome after he had been denounced as a heretic. He lived there until at least
1629 and possibly until 1632 when Galileo’s most famous book was published. In
Rome, Rosales published the fourth part of his banned book, Anacefaleoses (the
contemporary meaning is related to the congenital absence of part of the brain)
and his separately published notes in his volume Luz Pequena Lunar.
Rosales’ book envisioned the
heavenly monarch as eternal, divine and perfect; it was related to the sun,
equally perfect according to Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology. Earthly monarchies,
in contrast, were imperfect, lacked in effect part of a brain, particularly the
Portugese monarchy. Earthly monarchies were linked with lunar light and linked
with its deficiencies. What would Rosales have thought of the moon, and, by
extension, earthly monarchies, if he had learned that the moon had no light of
its own but merely reflected the light of the sun?
Rosales was also renowned for
his poetry “in Spanish, Portuguese and Neo-Latin to expound his theories about
the human and divine knowledge.” He also wrote encomia in praise of his friends
and colleagues. Unequivocally, he had great admiration
for Galileo as a mathematician, a scientist and an astrologer, but seemed
unaware of Galileo’s scepticism of the latter subject.
What comes across is
Galileo’s total indifference to whether Rosales was a Christian, a Marrano or a
believing Jew which he became. Mathematics and science were the new universal
language. In contrast, in spite of the apparent greater tolerance for Jews in
Hamburg, Christian physicians were rivals of Jewish physicians because of the
so-called Jewish medical practices. But there was also a great jealousy of the
Jews from Portugal, for the mercantilist elite of Hamburg engaged in banking
and international trade, primarily with Brazil, lived in incredible luxury and
in huge mansions.
I do not tweet, but I sent out the following series of short
messages in separate emails to a few colleagues which I decided to share with a
The first note was in response to a fear of emerging antisemitism
in the impeachment hearings given the large number of Jews involved.
Antisemitism and the Impeachment Hearings
Re Jews and antisemitism and the fact that “Shifty
Schiff” as Trump dubbed Adam Schiff, and Daniel Goldman whom Trump is expected
to insult next, the alleged Jewish conspiracy net will grow wider and deeper as
the impeachment proceedings continue. After all, Lt. Col. Alex Vindman and
Gordon Sondland, whom the Trumpers are preparing to throw under the bus, are
both Jewish. Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. When the Supreme Court intervenes,
it will be pointed out that one-third of the Supreme Court justices are Jewish
– Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. (Kagan was the first
female to have a Bat Mitzvah in her modern orthodox synagogue.)
Since her parents fled communism and Nazi
Germany, I have been told that rumours abound that Marie Yovanovitch is Jewish
(Yanovitch is a common Ukrainian Jewish name), though I have no evidence that
Marie Yovanovittch is.
Further, the two indicted crooks working with
Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. are both Jewish; one of
them has already agreed to turn on Giuliani.
When you marry antisemitism to misogyny – Trump
referred to Yovanovitch as “that woman – you have a toxic mix
for conspiracy theorists and believers in “the deep state.” Trump
will find worse names for all the ones mentioned in the email that I received and
those I have added. Further, after all, like Vindman, many have what Sean Duffy
called, “an affinity for Ukraine.”
This is far worse than the Nixon impeachment, given
Trump’s crimes and the depth of his support among evangelicals who are
currently mostly pro-Zionist and supporters of two routes to redemption.
It is even worse than the McCarthy period and
the association of Jews with communism. We have to be prepared for much greater
calumnies and the increase in the rise of right wing as well as left wing
Looming Economic Disaster and Rising Antisemitism.
I forgot to mention how the coming economic dire straits we are
entering as a result of trade wars and economic geo-politics, but even more
profoundly the emerging currency war as China seeks to create an alternative
government-backed digital currency to escape the dominance of the U.S. dollar
and the U.S. efforts under Trump to use the dollar for political coercion – the much bigger story
behind the Trump bribery attempt on Zelensky. There is more to Facebook CEO
Mark Zuckenberg’s warnings about non-U.S.-regulated digital
currencies than just the technology of payments. We are entering an era in
which the 2008 crash of Lehman Brothers will look like small potatoes – and we can expect Jews
and Israel to become ready targets and branded as the economic cosmopolitan and
internationalist czars that brought about the great economic crash.
Climate Change and Israel
One last item:
If I have
not offered enough apocalyptic warnings re Jews and Israel, there is the
greatest danger of all, climate change. For the first time ever,
the report prepared by the Israel Climate Change Information Center provides
details the effects of rising sea levels on Israel and which regions are at-risk
of flooding, including exactly which streets will be inundated. These include
those in Tel Aviv, Acre, Haifa, and Bat Yam. In total, 2.5 million people are
in danger from rising sea levels. Flooding of rivers can endanger another 2.8
million. Beyond this, there is the spread of disease, water-born
mosquitoes that multiply during floods, heat strokes, contamination of Israeli
aquifers and damage to desalination plants.
Enjoy the rest of your
final note as the White House prepares to smear Vindman – you can see how much
I am bothered by what I see as coming.
impeachment hearings on Friday, the Republicans tabled the transcript of Trump’s April
21 phone call with Zelensky in which the two engaged in a repetitive session of
mutual admiration, adoration and congratulations. However, the transcript
contradicted the White House publicly released readout at the time that said
that the conversation indicated “the unwavering support of the United States
for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and Trump’s support for
Zelensky’s “reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity and root out
But there is
no mention of either topic in the transcript. The White House then blamed Lt.
Col. Alexander Vindman for the discrepancy between the official readout in
April and the transcript of the phone call tabled at the impeachment hearings on
Friday. As the explanation for the discrepancies released later said, “It is
standard operating procedure for the National Security Council to provide
readouts of the president’s phone calls with foreign leaders.” This one was
allegedly prepared by the NSC’s Ukraine expert, Alex Vindman. However, the
official readout was based on talking points that the president did not follow.
After the call, the White House staff did not update the readout to reflect what
Trump actually said — and what he left out.
Yet Vindman will be
painted as the treasonous fall guy.
Horror of horrors and a
taste of what is coming.
A final, final, final note
re throwing another Jew, Gordon Sondland, besides Michael Cohen, under the bus.
Sondland, a Trump
sycophant and financial supporter, first tried to cover up for Trump in
insisting that foreign aid was never linked to Trump’s demand that Zelensky
launch investigations into the Bidens, and then his revision that there was a
linkage for which he was responsible by perhaps presuming too much. It was he
who had communicated a “quid pro quo,” not Trump. In light of other witness
testimonies, Sondland now remembered those conversations as his memory was
refreshed. But wait for the third revision this week in light of the Holmes
testimony. Senator Lindsey O. Graham has already signalled the attack on
Sondland of whom Trump said of this megadonor that, “I hardly knew the
gentleman.” Graham has already declared that Sondland’s testimony is “full of
crap.” “Why did [Sondland] change his testimony? Was
there a connection between [Sondland] and Democratic operatives on the
committee?”This is even before the second career civil servant
in the embassy who also overheard Trump’s conversation with Sondland testifies.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) echoed Senator Graham. Sondland didn’t mention this
call in his initial testimony so he cannot be trusted.
Does anyone think Trump or
his sycophantic supporters can be trusted in anyway?
I will next turn to more interesting if far more distant and less relevant topics in parallel with my forthcoming five-part seminar series on Gentile Views of Jews in the Seventeenth Century. The first seminar on 20 November 2019 at 7:00 p.m. at Holy Blossom Temple will be on Galileo.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.’
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.’
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.’
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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
Selections from some e-mail
responses to my blogs:
Thank you, as usual, Howard for these wide-ranging and
incisive and substantive blogs.
enjoyed the conference.
Intellectual food for thought.
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.
“left:” It was too much of a “left” consensus on issues without any contrarian
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.
is a means not a value.
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.
focused exclusively on the occupation Itself without explaining that it is not
the cause of the conflict but rather the result of the conflict,
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
they non-Zionist or conditional Zionists?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
in my view, was quite reflective of the Israeli soul/buried consensus when he
said, “we don’t wish to rule another people.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.