Why Not Worship a Golden Calf? KI TISA, EXODUS 30:11−34:31

In one of the most well-known biblical tales in Exodus, of all people, Aaron, the High Priest of the Israelites, makes a calf out of molten gold (32:4). It is made to be an object of worship “to the Eternal” (32:5). Rituals, that include sacrifices and festive dancing, attend those rituals. (32:6) The story seems to be the epitome of idol worship or idolatry.

Further, Aaron defends his action and never seems to be punished for an act of apparent treason against God. But 3,000 Israelite idol worshippers are murdered as punishment, though rabbinic commentators tend to focus on the words and actions of Moses; because of his pleas to God (32:11-14), God reverses Himself and does not eradicate the Israelites from the face of the earth (32:19). However, when Moses himself directly observes what the Israelites did, in a rage, he smashes the tablets on which are written the ten commandments. He burns the golden calf (32:19-20).

That got me. Everyone, or almost everyone, knows that gold does not burn – except in rare circumstances if you use fluorine gas. And there is no evidence that Moses had access to such a substance. In any case, in an oxygen atmosphere, gold will not burn. It is inert. So why tell such a preposterous fib?

You don’t believe that the Torah lies? Read it yourself. Oops! That is not exactly what the text says. Moses did burn it, but only to soften it so he could grind it into a powder which he sprinkled on the water which he made the Israelites drink. Perhaps I mis-read other parts of the narrative. Let’s read it again.

א  וַיַּרְא הָעָם, כִּי-בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן-הָהָר; וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ–כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ. 1 And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him.’
ב  וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, אַהֲרֹן, פָּרְקוּ נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם; וְהָבִיאוּ, אֵלָי. 2 And Aaron said unto them: ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.’
ג  וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ, כָּל-הָעָם, אֶת-נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם; וַיָּבִיאוּ, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן. 3 And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.
ד  וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם, וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט, וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ, עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה; וַיֹּאמְרוּ–אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. 4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: ‘This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.’

We are given the circumstances. Moses had gone up the mountain and had not returned. They asked Aaron to make them a god (אֱלֹהִים) that could go before them in their flight from Egypt. Perhaps they were not asking Aaron to make a substitute for God, but a substitute for Moses whom they had begun to treat as a god. After all, they did not abandon God, but planned to worship God the next day. For Aaron proclaimed: “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” (32:5) Today shall be a festival for replacing Moses. Was that the suggestion? Was Aaron engaged in a palace coup against his younger brother? But then why build an altar in front of the golden calf? There was no altar to Moses.

Further, Aaron announced in verse 4 that this is thy god (אֱלֹהֶיךָ) when the request had been for a god (אֱלֹהִים). You can see how tricky it gets. From the previous chapters, there had clearly been no objections to making objects out of gold dedicated to the worship of God – the breastplate for example that the High Priest wore. Opulence, as I wrote, was the order of the day. Aaron did not try to melt down what the artisans had already crafted. He asked for donations of the people’s personal jewelry.

Further, the occasion of the request was not that Moses had been gone for so long, but that his day of return was delayed. But it was not. Rashi, therefore, offers a commentary to explain why the Israelites had become confused in their counting of the days, with the suggestion that Aaron was just practicing a delaying tactic.

Already we have at least two possibilities.

  1. Aaron was engaged in a palace coup;
  2. Aaron was totally loyal and was engaged in stalling.

There are other complications in interpreting. Those beseeching Aaron were not the Israelites who escaped from Egypt, but Egyptians who had escaped with them and wanted their gods to be represented in the leadership. They wanted multiculturalism to be respected and Apis or Osiris represented in leading the exodus and not just a god who appeared as a cloud of smoke of a pillar of fire. They wanted something much more solid.

Thus, the people, whoever they were, wanted:

  1. A substitute for God;
  2. A substitute for Moses;
  3. An addition to the Israelite pantheon.

This begins to read like a story which at multiple points can be read in different ways and, depending which interpretation you make at that nodal point, the story continues with a different trajectory. Perhaps a close and nuanced reading only sinks us deeper into confusion. The above are only samples. For example, if the text is read as an allegory about the situation at the time it was written, then it might be a story to reprimand the Israelites in the Northern Kingdom who had split off from the Southern Kingdom. Jeroboam, the Northern Kingdom’s first king, to offset Jerusalem as the centre of worship with the symbols of winged lions (cherubim) adorning the sacred altar, created his own cultic practice around the worship of a calf.

What precisely is the situation? What are the motives of the protesters? What are Aaron’s motives? Was Aaron simply a passive nebbish who gave way to a populist appeal, or someone who was taking advantage of that appeal but who subsequently did not and would not take responsibility for his actions? Or was he himself the secret initiator of the uprising? Why a golden calf? To compete with the opulence of the existing mobile tabernacle? But how do you move a weighty statue? Further, if God is represented by fire and clouds, both ethereal in some sense, this idol is itself made from a material that comes up from the bowels of the earth. Perhaps the dissatisfied followers just wanted to be grounded.

The tale at the very least seems to be a contrast between the weighty and the ethereal, the inert and unenergetic (inert, from the Latin in (not) and ert (energetic), versus the dynamic. In building a golden calf, the preference is for a “native” state rather than a nation in the making. A person relates to God, argues with God, tries to persuade God as Moses does. There is no relationship with a golden calf. The Israelites and the golden calf did not share any memories and no covenant bound them together. A calf made of gold is inert and does not react to or relate with other substances. Echoing yesterday’s blog, the golden calf symbolizes a stress on the natural, the earth-bound as the driving force as opposed to hope and promise and ethical principles and laws. On the one hand, the calf is stable and balanced – see Aristotle’s depiction of the Golden Mean. The tale is about the misdirection of populism, the demand for political correctness and a resistance to rapid change.

And then in addition to fire and air versus earth, water is introduced. Moses makes the Israelites drink water sprinkled with the dust of the pulverized gold. We recall that whenever the Israelites enter the Tent of Meeting, they wash their hands with water so “they will not die.” Perhaps, this is just a hygienic practice. The message is clear and repeated over and over. You have to cleanse yourself. You have to take responsibility for what you do wrong. What stands out most in this story is that Aaron, the High Priest, does not take responsibility for what he does and is not punished for what he did.

Recall that the idol is a calf, not a mature bull. It is young and immature. Further, even matured, a cow is a dumb and passive creature. The bias is obvious. The dynamic versus the static. Laws of man not determined by laws of nature. But it is also an allegory about goals. In everyday life, we see it all around us. People are awarded gold medals and gold trophies, Nobel prizes in gold, gold plated Oscars and Emmies, the Palme d’Or. Perhaps Moses sprinkled gold on the water that he forced the Israelites to drink so that they would incorporate gold as a sign of value into their very being. The gold dust would mature them.

Return for a moment to Aristotle’s golden mean. The Tanakh is not about making a deal between polar extremes, but dialectically working with two qualities, say freedom and rights, not versus equality, but between two values having different and related dimensions. The task is to make them compatible, not seek to weaken either through choosing a point between.

We do not worship a golden calf because we do not worship inertia. We accept gold as ornamental, especially in relationship to that which adorns the divine, but we do not make the gold divine.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Wall V – A Psychological Version of Ocular Malice

[The additional discussion of Germany and its “mental wall” will be saved for a subsequent blog.]

I begin by contrasting two world views in dealing with hatred. These two are not the only ones. However, the two agglomerations of ideas are critical in understanding the contending voices in our current zeitgeist. I contrast the two world views in terms of their contrasting interpretations of:

  1. The Driving Forces Behind Political Behaviour;
  2. The Character of Memory;
  3. Mass Psychology;
  4. The Norm of Political Correctness.

An elaboration of Jordan Petersen’s views offers a helpful start.

Underlying Peterson’s claim that his actions were propelled by the need to defend free speech against the tyranny of political correctness, one does not find a premise of liberty, but of biology rooted in Darwinian determinism. Gender was not socially but biologically determined. Further, there were only two possibilities, male or female, a thesis that ran contrary to the nominalist position that the use of language is a convention and scientific language is not naturally determined, but a product of practice and agreement.

The Darwinian premise also underpinned one of my reader’s extensive objections to my psychological thesis explaining that the nature of hatred directed at others. The reader held that, “fundamental human nature…is first and foremost self-interested, particularly when these interests of the self are perceived as being threatened – no matter whether the threat is real or imagined.”

Jordan Peterson claimed that we are doomed unless we reverse course and found values on natural law and Darwinian deterministic scientific law whereby all humans are perceived through the lens of survival of the fittest. As his former academic colleague, friend and supporter, Bernie Schiff, has written, for Jordan Peterson, “Gender, gender roles, dominance, hierarchies, parenthood [are] all firmly entrenched in our biological heritage.”

For my correspondent, the universal propensity to self-interested behaviour in the interests of survival is then coloured by social psychology determined by the dispositions built into citizens by their different national cultures. In America, the pioneer ideal fostered individualism. Germans by ethnicity are rooted in their village of birth which fosters a sense of communal welfarism and an insular resistance to outsiders. Then why are both Americans and Germans so divided?

Quite aside from the very questionable theory of the roots of national culture in Germany, the thesis ignores the fact that one-fifth of the German population was uprooted at the end of WWII and forced to resettle in other parts of Germany than their place of birth. One could try to rebut by arguing that this trauma simply reinforced the disposition to adopt communal values and conformity more deeply. However, then the “birthplace” thesis would still need to be modified, especially for the several generations that followed.

This deformation of German history also ignores the fact that 10% of the names in the Berlin telephone directory are Huguenot, descendants of the first group forced to move in modern times who were referred to as refugees, the Protestants in flight from intolerance in Catholic France.

My reader’s thesis is an example of collective history that I referred to as forgetting, as falling back on a simplistic and reified view of national identity captured by a nostalgic outlook. Many Germans did this. Many did not and have tried to remember, to recall what happened by empathetically re-enacting the thoughts, feelings and decisions of their German predecessors of all varieties.

Jordan Peterson also exhibited a propensity to engage in misrepresentation accompanied by a disposition to seek martyrdom when no persecution or prosecution was in sight. He holds a contrarian deterministic view to the current dominant view of biology and certainly a contrarian view to the currently dominant consensus on the rules of language use. However, in defense of his position, he also revealed within himself and in his behaviour the social psychology of authoritative figures that he had at one time studied as objective fact. That depiction has since been internalized and incorporated into his own rhetorical style.

There was first of all the rhetorical appeal to emotions based on the mass psychology of those who shared his basic way of thinking. Peterson both insisted that he was a rallying cry for freedom of speech while tapping into a zeitgeist that defined regulations of any kind to be restrictions on freedom  Further, he accused those engaged in identity politics as the real sources of discrimination, a similar position in this respect to that of Francis Fukuyama.

Peterson thereby tapped directly into the resentments of many male white young adults whose relative status had declined relative to other ethnic groups and in the face of female success.

Political correctness and its imposition were viewed as the root cause of the threat to freedom of speech, ignoring the degree that it might not just be a mode of repression, but could, in fact, also guide the use of language to emphasize civility and respect for the dignity of others. On the metaphysical plane, the attack on existing norms of language use was a critique of a conventionalist wedge in the use of language that would lead to chaos.

Political correctness could be a means of repression and a force for conformity. Nominalism could easily slip into postmodernist disrespect for any claim to objective truth. And one might identify with Peterson when these were his targets. For example, there is the very recent case of Phillip Adamo, a respected history and mediaeval studies professor at Augsburg University in Minnesota who earned the Carnegie Award in 2015 as the best university teacher in that state. He was suspended under pressure from students who “felt uncomfortable” and “did not feel safe in his class” when he discussed James Baldwin’s use of the term “nigger” in The Fire Next Time. The specific Baldwin sentence was: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.” Adamo was suspended by the university in October; until today, to the best of my knowledge, he has not been reinstated.

As Randy Kennedy noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “This is not a case of a professor calling someone ‘nigger.’ This is a case of a professor exploring the thinking and expression of a writer who voiced the word to challenge racism. This is not a case of a professor negligently throwing about a term that’s long been deployed to terrorize, shame, and denigrate African-Americans. This is a case of a professor who, attentive to the sensibilities of his students, sought to encourage reflection about their anxieties and beliefs.”

Quite aside from the obvious abuse of the principle of academic freedom and the failure to follow any due process procedures in suspending the professor, the university’s defence of its actions made everything even worse. According to Augsburg’s chief academic officer, instead of his academic colleagues, a team of students and multicultural student services staff, which also included faculty representatives, have been assigned to review, not whether the suspension was inappropriate, but “the program areas about which concerns had been raised.” “We know that the work of fostering an inclusive learning environment is ongoing, and we are fully committed to it,” said President Paul C. Pribbenow. “We are grateful to the students, faculty and staff who have spoken courageously to raise campus awareness, who have engaged in actively listening to the issues being expressed, and who have called for changes that advance our equity work.” This seems, at least on the surface, to be an open-and-shut case of political correctness gone awry.

Perhaps even more interesting, the Administration’s defence of its actions offered the mirror image of Peterson failing to recognize that the legislation he objected to was about discrimination and not threatening a professor’s rights to use language. Except Peterson, instead of engaging in discussion governed by rules of civility and respect, shot arrows at postmodernists, suggesting that their classes be boycotted and that parents involve themselves in such protests and demands. Nor were his efforts to ask governments to cut university funding for courses that allegedly contributed to chaos not perceived as at odds with his insistence on protecting his free speech rights as a so-called champion objector to “political correctness.”

In contrast to Adamo, Peterson’s free speech rights were never challenged. At the same time, he challenged the rights of postmodernists to spread their convictions on the grounds that their beliefs would result in chaos. He claimed martyrdom on another front – his application for a research grant had been rejected, he claimed, based on the public position he took, while providing not a whit of evidence to support such a charge. Finally, he did not simply argue with his critics, but was angry and abusive towards them.

Before I clarify and elaborate on my own thesis, let me offer several others that attempt to explain this hatred as a form of group-think leading to attacks on and even endangering the well-being of others. In one thesis, what begins simply as a propensity to conformity morphs into protecting a collectivity and tribal rivalry. Hate is a symptom of fear. Fear is a symptom of insecurity, that the expression of your self-interest is not being and cannot be achieved. The frustration leads to the proposition that you are a victim of external forces, external negative forces that have their source in alien others out to get you. This is the displacement thesis.

As one writer put it, “The politics of national populism are not, as critics claim, simply and only cloaks for fascistic voters and governments’ pursuing policies of racial discrimination—though some obviously are. But other iterations of this are instead natural (my italics) expressions of community—a perfectly uncontroversial idea that was once conventional wisdom. Those of us interested in moving beyond flame-throwing—and into a useful conversation about how to create meaningful and effective public policy that benefits the most people—would do well to return to it.”

This natural expression of community is somehow, and I would argue, contradictory to the definition of “effective public policy” as “policy that benefits most people,” a utilitarian consequentialist stance that is at odds with the conservative value of preserving nationalism and a particular way of life.

The latter is a disposition and a choice and not natural in the sense of a universal given. In the next blog, I will elaborate on the character of this latter form of conservativism, which I value even though it is not my primary disposition or preference. It is a conservatism that is compatible with some ideas on the left and other ideas on the right, but is not compatible with the proto-fascism that I have been describing. The latter is prone to defend its positions on the basis of natural laws, on laws and propensities given in nature rather than in terms of a disposition chosen and reinforced or modified or even rejected by an individual who possesses that disposition.

On 13 September 2016, Psychology Today published an article to explain how, “Research explains why Donald Trump maintains support despite shocking behaviour.”  However, that is not the actual reference group, for the article refers only to the adamant supporters for whom Trump can do no wrong. Facts and conclusions of research have no persuasive power. Their behaviour was explained in terms of “natural laws.” The first was the Dunning-Kruger (D-K) effect.

David Dunning in Politico, wrote, “The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.” However, it is not because they are dumb; it is because they are not self-critical. They can only regurgitate what they believe; they cannot actively re-think. But this is simply the character of dogmatists. And there are plenty of dogmatists just as assuredly opposed to Trump. This so-called effect explains nothing except to assert that most of Trump’s diehard supporters are dogmatists evidently incapable of or unwilling to reflect on their position.

A second explanation is that the individuals in the group have a hypersensitivity to threat. Science has unequivocally shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening. A 2008 study in the journal Science found that conservatives have a stronger physiological reaction to startling noises and graphic images compared to liberals. A brain-imaging published in Current Biology revealed that those who lean right politically tend to have a larger amygdala — a structure that is electrically active during states of fear and anxiety.

In other words, we are anatomically and physiologically automatically predisposed to being conservatives. Branding migrants as threats stimulate a fear response especially strong in certain individuals.

A third explanation rooted in science derives from Terror Management Theory. Humans “have a unique awareness of their own mortality. The inevitability of one’s death creates existential terror and anxiety that is always residing below the surface. In order to manage this terror, humans adopt cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that act as a buffer by instilling life with meaning and value.”

“Terror Management Theory predicts that when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their worldviews and national or ethnic identify, and act out more aggressively towards those who do not… Not only do death reminders increase nationalism, they influence actual voting habits in favor of more conservative presidential candidates.”

The fourth scientific explanation offered is “High Attentional Engagement.” DT could keep the brain engaged. Hilary Clinton could not. “Trump kept both attention and emotional arousal high throughout the viewing session” using showmanship and simple messages. He was the better entertainer.

Summed up, Trump supporters lack self-critical skills, have a hypersensitivity to purported threats, especially those put forth as threatening their lives, and prefer entertainment to news. These are not scientific laws; they are simply correlations.

The issue is why? Explanations which commit “natural fallacies” (which I will explain in Sunday’s blog) are circular and explain nothing but merely insist there are a number of biological propensities that dictate support for DT. The implication: we can do little to dissuade Trump supporters from their support. They have a wall against contrary information which, unlike the Mexican border, is impenetrable.

Sunday: The Naturalistic Fallacy; Conservativism that is not a Wall but an Opening

Wall IV – The Identity Illusion: Four Men and the Psychology of the Other

Dedicated to my youngest son, Gabriel, and my oldest daughter, Shon

I want to understand the identity illusion and go beyond it. I do not want to simply repeat all the horrific traits of Donald Trump and his appalling administration simply to hold a mirror up to it. Bookstores are now awash in essays, books and other tomes that do precisely that. I want to comprehend what I have seen and analyzed. Out of that analysis, I hope to probe the character of our modern ethical compass premised on freedom in the form of rights, equality and democracy after developing a psychological and sociological theory rooted in hard facts, what in Russian is called truth or pravda. Instead of the delusional effort to make fairy tales real, I want to closely examine the cruelty of the reality of the rise of populist nativism we are living through to raise it to the level of insight without pretending I have discovered a new transcendental truth, istina in Russian.

I proceed by offering a ham and cheese sandwich. The bottom bread slice features Fritz Kuhn in a short documentary film of a 1939 Nazi rally in New York. The top slice is a portrait of Jordan Peterson, a U. of T. psychologist and current media superstar about whom I have written before. In between, I offer the ham of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis on identity politics and the cheese of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s views on the same subject. The two slices of bread reveal behaviour, though the top slice claims to be rooted in theory. In between, we find two efforts at theorizing about the relationship of self to the Other.

Eighty years ago, on 21 February 1939, 22,000 Nazis marched through Manhattan and held a rally in Madison Square Gardens. This long-forgotten event is recaptured in a short 7-minute riveting, but truly revolting, documentary film, Night at the Garden, using archival footage shot that evening. The film is directed and edited by Marshall Curry with the support of Field of Vision. Curry believed that this episode has long been forgotten because Americans wanted to forget this shameful incident. But Katja Petrowskaja in her novel, Maybe Esther: A Family Story, covering the effort of the USSR to erase from history the Ukraine famine and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, offers another more insightful thesis.

Not shame and embarrassment, not repression of a deplored past, but rather the deaf-muteness of opportunists who change costumes to suit the times. There are no unbearable memories, only memories we deliberately bury, not out of shame, but to escape being targeted, caught, labeled, rejected and marginalized. To remember, however, is more than recognition, is more than honest identification. It is to empathize, to reenact a past as if one were there, as if one was a participant. To remember is to accept the possibility of the subjunctive. To forget is to deny this enormous power of the imagination and substitute contrived and repeated illusions and delusions, reducing the unfamiliar to the familiar, to the readily recognizable in formulaic language. In contrast, to remember is to recover the unfamiliar without the quest for redemption or the insistence on judgement. Remembering entails an encounter with the unvarnished truth, unmediated by pundits and commentaries, that allows you to see, to hear, to watch, to observe and to wrestle with what your eyes and ears are taking in.

Listen to, do not just read, the following:

William Randolph Hearst: “Whenever you hear a prominent American called a fascist, you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a loyal citizen who stands for Americanism,” in Hearst’s view, for true Americanism.

Halford E. Luccock  (effectively replying to Hearst): “When and if fascism comes to America, it will not be labeled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism’.”

Fritz Kuhn, the German Bund Orator in the Madison Square Garden 1939 rally as an ostensible memorial to George Washington, whom he characterized as “immortal,” insisted that:

  • We are the silent majority
  • We are faced with the denial of justice and a reign of terror
  • Jews are the source of that denial and the source of terror
  • We have the right to speak up against the Jewish-controlled liberal press and media
  • We will succeed no matter who blocks our way.

What we hear is the expected demagoguery, the attacks on the press, the insistence that they are “the silent majority,” the claim that the members of the German-American Bund are the true Americans who simply want to take the country back from the usurpers – the Jews. There is no civility, only the implication that kindness and respect for others is simply equal to political correctness.

From The New York Times this morning:

Trump, for his part, characteristically spent the weekend venting his spleen on Twitter. He brought up “retribution” against “Saturday Night Live” and TV networks that he believed were unfairly ridiculing his administration. And he inveighed against the “RIGGED” and “CORRUPT” media, whom he yet again branded as the “ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.”

As familiar as the script may be at this point, analysts are no less concerned. Now that Trump has taken the extraordinary step of seeking emergency powers for politically controversial ends, he joins a long, dark history of would-be and actual authoritarians doing the same.

I now turn to my second male, the ham in my sandwich offering. Francis Fukuyama of “end of history” fame, in his latest book, Identity: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, explains why, contrary to his predictions, liberal democracy faltered and went into reverse. Why? Identity politics. Identity politics explains why “white nationalism” has moved from a fringe movement to something much more mainstream in American politics.

However, white nationalism has been central to American politics and has never been a fringe movement. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, efforts in the U.S., many successful, were made to limit voting rights to whites. Following the Civil War during Reconstruction, a systematic effort, using both legal means and violence, was used to “eliminate the nigger from politics.” Even the champions of the anti-slavery movement, the Republican Party, in spite of controlling both houses of Congress, over several decades at the end of the nineteenth century and in the decade after WWI, never could find its way to enacting an anti-lynching law. Over the last four decades, voter suppression, using legislation and intimidation, has been used to undermine the Voting Rights Act. Rather than marginal, the suppression of Black rights has been central to American politics.

Based on his witless misconstrued history, Fukuyama offers the now standard explanation for the overwrought fears of white, middle American citizens, largely male, to both immigration and minority rights. He traces that obsession to anxiety about loss of status in the globalized economy. True enough. But why did this anxiety express itself in resisting Black voting rights and immigration from the “brown” south? Fukuyama’s answer – it was a response to the Democratic Party “cult of diversity.” Activists on the left abandoned the New Deal and the quest for equality that required attending to relatively declining incomes for the American working class and opted to “coddle minorities,” thereby impelling voters to rally around their Christian and white identity. Identity politics on the right was a response to identity politics on the left, not a resurrection of a standard trope in American history in a new form.

The left is blamed for proliferating identities and undermining a common one, for fostering intercommunal suspicions and reinforcing insulated communities, and for the postmodern insistence that truth cannot be differentiated from lies for there are only different perspectives given one’s group identity.

I am not trying to defend postmodernism, the view that almost every action is an expression of racism and that Western culture is inherently colonialist and patriarchal. However, I do want to counter the effort to displace responsibility from the anti-democratic right onto the shoulders of the left. The intolerant right have powerful roots in the history of America that did not need left identity politics to reinforce its exclusionist ideology.

Fukuyama attributed these developments to the effects of modernization that both enormously multiplied choices available while undermining authoritative norms to guide those choices for the majority of humans who are anxious about autonomy and inclined towards conformity. In addition, he directly blamed Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s distinction between an inner authentic self of subjective feelings, which Rousseau valorized, and an outer imposed self of cultivated so-called “rational” norms, which Rousseau identified with repression. These beliefs about American history, the current global zeitgeist and a historical intellectual psychological view of the self in relationship to others, together are used to justify an assimilationist approach to immigration combined with a very cautious approach to absorptive capacity which would strictly limit immigration lest those fears Fukuyama depicts be exacerbated.

In contrast to Francis Fukuyama, Kwame Anthony Appiah, in The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Class, Culture, is a vocal pluralist rather than assimilationist, a promoter of cosmopolitanism rather than a supposedly responsible and broader nationalism, and a self-critical rather than declamatory thinker. For Fukuyama, the disposition to conformity is overriding, whereas for Appiah the need for identity is not determined by identification with another, but as a reference point to frame what we see, how we see and how we evaluate what we see.

There is no essential character to a religion, a nation, social status or even culture. Each has a range of meanings with only a family resemblance among them. Lacking any essentialism, there is no norm to determine assimilation, which, in any case, is always a two-way street, a process and an interchange rather than an immigrant conforming and adapting to a dominant culture. The meaning of social status, the interpretation of one’s religion and belief system, the conception of what is brightest and best in one’s nation, and, most of all, one’s culture, will shift over time in response to a multiplicity of differences and their respective valences.

Homogeneity, presumed to be an ideal by assimilationist advocates, is a chimera. We live in a shape-shifting world. That means that even our definitions of freedom and equality will vary over time and from nation to nation. Its democratic expressions will be expressed in a wide spectrum. Cosmopolitanism is the recognition of and tolerance for these variations.

But then how can we say that our freedoms are being undermined, that we are receding even further from the goal of minimizing inequalities. More significantly, Appiah buys into the basic explanatory thesis that Fukuyama accepts, and that I once did as well, that the election of Donald Trump was mostly an expression of resentment, but against the cosmopolitan ideal rather than the emphasis on multiculturalism and pluralism, which may be the same thing. But where Fukuyama places the responsibility for instigation on the pluralists, Appiah celebrates their pluralism and is proud that he lives in a city like New York that fosters a respect for difference. The issue for both is whether that resentment characterizes the bottom line or whether it too must be interpreted in terms of something more basic.

My thesis, as expressed in previous blogs, is not to deny the politics of resentment in either of the above expressions, but to suggest, perversely, that deeper than the sense of rejection, of looming and experiencing marginalization, is an unconscious identification with the very ones one targets, whether it be Jews, Blacks or migrants from Mexico and Central America.

I cannot prove it. But perhaps I can illustrate my thesis by a reference from right field. Jordan Peterson deplores leftist identity politics. His ardent opposition has propelled him from a position as an obscure psychology professor at the University of Toronto to a superstar public intellectual in three years, in large part because of the new media. What are the core facts of his rise to international celebrity status?

Though he was a very popular professor, and though many of his ideas long pre-dated his rise into the intellectual stratosphere, his fame took off when he declared that he would not comply with Bill C-1, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code introduced in the Canadian Parliament on 17 May 2016 just when Donald Trump was sewing up his effort to become the Republican nominee for president of the United States. The week before, Donald Trump won the primaries in both West Virginia and Nebraska. The changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code added gender identity and hate propaganda as protected grounds.

Bill C-1 became law on 17 June 2017 after being passed with huge majorities at a time when Trump had been in office for almost six months and just when reports appeared that special counsel, Robert Mueller, had been investigating President Trump for possible obstruction of justice and whether he tried to end an inquiry into his sacked national security adviser.

Peterson publicly and vociferously insisted that he would not comply with the Act’s requirement that he refer to certain students who requested to be addressed in gender neutral pronouns. He insisted that he was willing to go to jail rather than comply. Had he not read the bill? It was explicit. It was not a bill to dictate language use, but to protect individuals from discrimination and from being targets of hate propaganda. To be an offence, an action had to be proven to have been motivated by bias, prejudice or hate. It was very difficult to see how any prosecutor, let alone court of law, could construe Peterson’s actions in defence of traditional linguistics to be a hate crime. And none did.

Peterson entered the global public sphere based on misrepresentation, sensationalism and a quest for martyrdom where there was virtually no possibility he could or would ever be charged let alone given a fine or even a jail sentence.

This act of defiance against alleged political correctness created a storm of controversy that quickly rocketed Jordan’s profile skyward, but this would not have happened if he had not mastered the new media and established his brand on it. Further, he had grounded his protest on the same grounds as Fritz Kuhn in the 1939 Madison Square Garden rally, an insistence that the foundation of the protest was a defence of the right to free speech when no one was challenging that right.

Tomorrow morning, I will explore Peterson’s position further as I shift from a focus on America to Germany.


Wall V – The Psychological Version of the Berlin Wall in Germany


With the help of Alex Zisman

Wall III – A Hypothesis to Explain Hatred of the Other

I have suggested symbolic, cultural, business and corrupt motives for promoting the building of the wall on the Mexican border of the U.S. But that is not enough. I have railed against politicians and hangers-on who grow even richer by themselves railing against the elites they claim control everything as they themselves fatten themselves like turkey vultures on the carcass of democracy. The issue remains of how to fit the two parts together, the manipulators and the manipulated. How do they become congruent?

What remains is to explore the psychological and sociological factors that facilitate this integration. This morning and tomorrow morning, I will, focus on the psychological. In an ensuing blog, I will offer a sociological thesis. At the core of the psychological thesis, I find hatred. After all, it was Henry Adams who defined politics as the “systematic organization of hatreds.” Even more important than the hatred of Hillary Clinton by Trump supporters was their hatred of refugees entering, or trying to enter, the U.S. from the south. The central point of my psychological thesis is that, in some very fundamental and unconscious sense, the haters reject what they despise about themselves and project those traits onto what they regard as radically other.

This is a thesis. Or, more accurately, a hypothesis. I find it convincing enough to offer it up for examination without the confidence to claim that it has truth value. It is an exploration, a probe. I very much welcome comments and criticisms. But please wait for the two mornings that I need to articulate my position.

Who hated?

What did they hate?

Why did they hate?

Most important, what was the nature of that hatred?

Instead of Donald Trump himself, let me begin with Trump’s former Attorney-General, the A-G Trump loved to despise, Jeff Sessions. Jeff was even more determined and focused on deterring Mexican and Central American arrivals into the U.S. than the president. As Andrew G. McCabe put it in his new memoir, How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump. “He didn’t read intelligence reports and mixed up classified material with what he had seen in newspaper clips. He seemed confused about the structure and purpose of organizations and became overwhelmed when meetings covered multiple subjects. He blamed immigrants for nearly every societal problem and uttered racist sentiments with shocking callousness.” (my italics) One might believe the reference was to Donald Trump, but it was to Jeff Sessions.

Why is a person a racist and why does one blame immigrants and refugees for all social problems? Why is that hatred translated into violence against immigrants and refugees?

For years, Francisco Cantú was an American border agent working on the Mexican/American divide. His just published book, The Line Becomes a River, explores how violence against Mexican and Central American migrants became normalized and valorized. For a border, such as that between Mexico and the U.S.A., serves as the frontier of a surveillance society which, at its centre, harvests billions of bits of personal information voluntarily surrendered in exchange for access, for crossing into the ethereal world of the internet and connectivity. The fee – reading advertisements. In turn, that interconnectivity becomes largely colonized by the sensational and the salacious, the divisive and the diversionary.

In this surveillance society as it manifests itself on the borderlands, it is not just that electronic and human eyes are seeking out migrants trying to cross the border illegally, but the border guards themselves actually experience it even more intensely. And the guards are on the periphery.

In the borderlands, you become conditioned, above all, to living with an ever-present sense of unease, of being watched, of moving through a landscape that has been resignified as a transitional terrain – a place made to exist, literally and figuratively, at the margins. To inhabit such a place is to inhabit a space of in-betweenness, a space where the ground is aggressively claimed, but the people who belong to it, and those seeking to cross it, are rejected.” (NYRB 17 January 2019, 4)

To live as if you are being observed all the time. To live with an ever-present sense of unease. To live on a territory that is transitional rather than permanent and secure. To live on the margins. To live where you are convinced you belong, but where you are rejected. To live in a place claimed by others. This is not just the experience of border guards, but the experience of those who live in those parts of America that have become economically and culturally marginalized.

The inhabitants feel they belong, but also feel that they do not and have been left behind. They feel that they are living on the borders of a society about to be invaded by aliens wanting their space. They live in a place where they feel displaced, feel out of place, where they feel unprotected and exposed, where they feel there are no real boundaries. In a land that they once owned and governed, they feel they have become the enemy and they turn themselves into “enemy combatants.”

That is why they project onto others at the crossings the label of “terrorists,” even though there are none to be found in reality. That is why in their fantastical world, those others become rapists and criminals. The borderlands, both the interior ones and those between the U.S.A. and Mexico, become the New Frontier, outside the reaches of the law, but where the law is used to reach out and seize and search with no regard to due process and the rights of man. It is a place where law becomes lawless and those appointed as officers to guard and protect grow inured to the death of the thousands, tens of thousands, who tried and continue to try but largely fail to cross a territory branded as a “wasteland,” a land of open graves where lives are wasted.

It does not matter that the numbers trying and the numbers dying have drastically dropped in recent years. What matters is the picture of those migrants imprinted on the minds of the haters. What matters is the increase in marginality of those far from the border. Identity on all levels is central both to being in this state and being rejected by the state. It begins with the absence of passports and visas or any legal document that will allow them passage. Those living in the hinterlands of America also lack a means to get out and move on.

I recognize that this is a perverse argument. The reason some Americans hate, despise and fear immigrants and refugees is because they identify with them, but reject this identity, ‘other’ that identity and project that identity onto others who lack the key elements of identity in the modern world, a passport that allows them to pass and a visa that allows them to remain. In failing to recognize the same in difference, they join the “culture of indifference,” the culture of self-centred inhumanity and avariciousness in which most people around the world are forced to live.

The modern world conceived five hundred years ago distinguished individuals, each with an ori ode that was material and an ori inu that was spiritual and interior. The ori inu was the authentic self, the true self of the ori ode which appears, which shows its face. This is a distinction that Jean-Jacques Rousseau would totally secularize. On the surface, we find a festering material corruption. But beneath, on the inside, we find festering emotions, resentments and hatreds. Periodically, the waves and swells turn into a tsunami to drown the tainted landscape in deep water.

Instead of a civilization where institutions have been created and developed to both protect rights and secure the good, society disintegrates into a Darwinian search for self and the quest for a leader who will restore personal government and individual financial management in place of bureaucratic and rule-based formalized structures and procedures. In other words, to restore the pre-constitutional absolute monarchy.

The masses and ignorant monied elites would combine to squeeze out expertise and meritocracy in the name of participatory democracy, a democratic polity to be led by a leader with erratic and unpredictable behaviour and subject to whims and rages to prove once and for all that government itself was impossible and anarchy must reign. For as soon as such a leader is accused and convicted of treason and heresy, then tolerance as the central motif of a liberal society will be replaced in fratricidal fights over that which characterizes treason and that which constitutes heresy.

I will write on tolerance as the core character of liberalism in trying to reconcile liberty and equality, freedom to and freedom from, rights and the good. That clarification is sorely needed in an era when populism and demagoguery threaten representative democracy and the latter is conceived as the weak link in the chain in failing to protect the hard-working and unrecognized native citizenry from the migrant hordes threatening to cross the borders. And, to anticipate, it will not be by locating the roots of democracy in the French Revolution and in Rousseau’s secularization of ori ode and ori inu where the latter, the inner, is the authentic self, while the self, developed by habits and restricted by the rule of law, is treated as dispensable.

For the danger does not only come from the right in search of a personalized elected absolute monarch, but from the left that opts for participatory rather than representative democracy in order to overcome the crises of identity in our contemporary world. (I will explore that crisis in my next blog.) Neither the right nor the left, of course, can address the most pressing crisis of our time, climate change. That requires a global response. Neither can address the need for enhanced political participation to battle the secrecy of governments and corporations and the suppression of information required to make responsible decisions. Engagement in that real battle requires a respect for rather than demeaning of governing institutions.

Neither the right nor the left can address the need for enhanced protection of rights, for both revert to “natural” rights, either rooted in a tooth-and-claw nature or rooted in the mediaeval tradition of natural law, and ignore the reality that rights always depend on citizenship. There is a similar tension over equality as over rights, the right extolling the least restrictions to award the equality of opportunity while the left extolls the use of governance to compensate for disadvantages and seek a society where the least inequality is the desired end.

However, I am getting ahead of myself.

In this current kleptocratic realm in which leaders and their acolytes brazenly lie, brazenly commit fraud, brazenly steal from the public treasury, both of foreign disintegrating realms and from their own, while advancing conspiracy theories of aliens born in Kenya posing as Americans, of a country in which every major crime in the history of the republic, every inexplicable incongruency, is the result of plots and cover-ups. They become fixated on monstrous patterns ultimately out to do them, and America, in. And the most monstrous and fearsome of them all are the invading hordes clamouring at the southern border. In this “scenario of shadows and invisible hands, of eyes that spy and voices that whisper…where the causes of events are silenced for reasons nobody knows,” the enemy becomes the wretched of the earth, literally emerging from the earth like zombies to destroy their world.

Of course, this is a portrait of flawed humanity. What else can be expected in such a world? Of course, it is a world of those obsessed with the pursuit of success who are defeated, largely by themselves, largely by literally shooting themselves in the foot. Of course, it is a world of characters buried in nostalgia for a world that never was that has been betrayed and that is daily being betrayed. Of course, it is a world in which fiction and fact become indistinguishable as the blood-stained furies turn cities into cemeteries of waste and detritus as poisonous deceit is exuded like a gas from the centre.

Stephen Holmes in a recent NYRB article called it, “The Identity Illusion.” I will begin with that analysis tomorrow morning.


With the help of Alex Zisman

On Walls II

Thanks for all the responses to my essay on the symbolism of the wall. I will mention only two – one serious and the other satirical. The first was written by a very committed Zionist high school classmate who moved to Israel after Grade XII.


‘We’ll build a wall’

they say.

‘They’ being those who know.

The generals

who first declared

we’d have to live together

side by side,

and trust the others

to behave like us.

Or like we’d like to be, that is.


And now ‘They’ say

it’s better to build walls

that separate

and keep us out of range

of rage unbridled

and the lust for blood

set free.


But no one listens now

because we’ve learned

that walls cannot contain

the fury

any more than words can


the dream.

                                                                                                      November ‏2001

Ricky Rapaport Friesem                          (First published in Moment, April 2003)

The poem was included in her collection, Parentheses, Kipod Press. Ricky, in 2015 wrote an iconoclastic essay on the Israeli national Anthem, Hatikva, called “Pagan Worship of Place.” In 2016, following the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA, her 2006 poem, first published in “Cyclamens and Swords” in November 2008, “Back in the USA,” was republished in Haaretz under the headline, “Will Mobility Trump Trump?” In 2017, she won the Israeli poetry award and in 2018 was the winner of the Tiferet Journal non-fiction award for writing promoting peace.

Her 2006 poem went as follows:

Back to the U.S.A / Ricky Rapoport Friesem

Another nowhere town
With a string of nowhere malls
Could be Dayton, Sacramento
Cedar Rapids or Sioux Falls.

What’s the difference? Same old shopping
Same old Big Boy, Home Depot
Toys ‘R Us and Circuit City
Pizza Hut and food to go

The motel room, same old carpet
Patterned to conceal the stains
Complimentary tea or coffee
Could be either, tastes the same

Same old wake-up call recorded
Cheerio voice to start the day
Followed by the same old breakfast
Plastic cereals, bread like clay

Eaten while the same old sound bites
Stir the air with gusts of news
Blasts of ads and blasts of music
And the same words over-used

“How’ya doin? Ya-da, ya-da
Have a nice one. Come Again.”
Wish I could, but I have changed and
Here’s not what it was back then

Oh, America I loved you,

Love you still but I can’t stay.
Gone too long and seen too much
To fit into the USA.

Written ten years before America’s election of Donald Trump, this critical depiction of a mindless, aesthetically challenged and heartless heartland that would become the base of Trump’s strongest support, suggests a distinctive cultural root to the rise of Trumpism in the USA. The other humorous feedback suggested a far more transactional root to the decline in America and the rise of the almost alt-right.

When Donald Trump visited Israel in May 2017, he went to the Kotel and placed a note in it like many Jewish people do in order to have God help them with something, solve a problem or perhaps give thanks. Here is what was written on businessman Trump’s note according to my second correspondent: “Please let me know who the contractor was for this project. I am planning something similar.”

However, a third explanation suggests that the transactional turn is but a cover for a far moreinsidious cause, the ability of con men to take Americans for a ride and install in place of a republic, a kleptocracy on the Russian model, the model prevalent in the vast majority of states run by very authoritarian-prone leaders. The campaign for the wall is but a distraction from the real program of walling off any close look at Donald Trump’s financial wheeling and dealing.

A third reader sent me a copy of an interview on Fresh Air by Terry Gross with Franklin Foer, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and his article, based on access to four years of correspondence, about Paul Manafort called “American Hustler: Oligarchs, Shady Deals, Foreign Money – How Paul Manafort Helped Corrupt Washington and Laid the Groundwork for the Subversion of American Politics.”

Given the opportunities presented and his own accumulated expertise since 1980 in running conventions, taking head counts and amassing delegates, Paul Manafort, like Roger Stone, a pioneer of modern trickster lobbying for foreign autocrats and plutocrats and political campaigns, dubbed the “torturer’s lobbyist,” volunteered as Donald Trump’s campaign manager. He was indicted in October by Robert Mueller. Manafort had been a lobbyist for Russian oligarchs and the Ukrainian political kleptocrat, Viktor Yanukovych (see Bullough below), and the Russian business mafioso, and billionaire, Oleg Deripaska.

When Yanukovych was swept from power and Deripaska hit a financial wall, Manafort, the epitome of vulgar consumerism, was left emotionally, politically and financially bereft and had a breakdown in 2015. He owed Deripaska, the Russian oligarch, $20m., while supporting a mistress in an expensive Manhattan apartment and his very large family home in the Hamptons. The emotional breakdown was evidently triggered when his daughter, in response to his newfound frugality re her imminent wedding expenses, discovered that he had lied and had not broken off his relationship with his mistress as promised.

This is but the superficial appearance of a kleptocratic system that goes much deeper than run-of-the-mill conspiracy theorists allege. A number of researchers attest to that. One turned out to be a prophet. Richard Palmer, a CIA station chief in Moscow in the early nineties. He testified in 1999 before Congress as follows:

  • America’s founding fathers feared the elevation of the pursuit of private gain at the expense of the public good
  • Billions in Russian money ended up in accounts in the Bank of New York
  • The Clinton administration plans to deal with money laundering by tabling new legislation enhancing banking regulations went nowhere
  • In October 2001 as part of the Patriot Act, George W. Bush included Title III, the International Money Laundering Abatement and Anti-terrorist Financing Act requiring suspicious money transfers to be reported to the government
  • Real estate transactions were exempted from the legislation and the result was an enormous increase in the purchase of luxury properties and condos anonymously through shell companies
  • In 2007, Bradley Birkenfeld revealed how American plutocrats were facilitated in investing assets abroad in tax-free havens anonymously
  • In 2010, Congress passed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) requiring foreign banks to report American assets held abroad
  • In the same year, the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United determined that corruption be defined very narrowly to refer effectively only to open bribery
  • The Obama administration in 2016 introduced two pilot projects in Miami and Manhattan to create a robust enforcement regime for reporting properties sold to anonymous foreign nationals
  • In November 2016, Americans elected a president who owed much of his recovery from bankruptcy to borrowing overseas capital of dubious origin and selling high end condos and properties to Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes; under Trump, real estate remained exempt from the provisions of the Patriot Act attempting to unveil the use of questionable capital from abroad to be invested in American real estate
  • Americans demanded disclosure of deposits in Swiss and other banks but the U.S. itself has become banking’s secrecy jurisdiction with little appetite for helping foreign governments repatriate stolen monies laundered in the US
  • In parallel, American professionals – lawyers, accountants and financial advisers – have largely fallen in line to become complicit in hiding stolen and ill-gotten gains
  • Dark money in the millions is now being spent to influence the results of American elections.

In the next blog, Wall III, in addition to cultural, business, Supreme Court and corrupt factors behind the support for Donald Trump in an age of legalized bribery and the rise of rot from within to become the cream on our coffee, I will probe the mass psychology and sociology that made this possible. In the meanwhile, the following references may be helpful in filling out the story of how kleptocracy has infested both America and much of the rest of the world.

Zephyr Teachout (2014) Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United, Harvard University Press.

Review, Thomas Frank, The New York Times, 18 October 2014: the dialectic & telos of scandal

Louise Story and Stephanie Saul (2015) “Towers of |Secrecy: Piercing the Shell Companies,” The New York Times, 7 February.

Bradley Birkenfeld (2016) Lucifer’s Banker: The Untold Story of How I Destroyed Swiss Banking Secrecy

Cf, https://www.c-span.org/video/?417080-1/bradley-birkenfeld-discusses-lucifer


Oliver Bullough (2018) Moneyland: Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy Is Threatening Our Future

Review, Andy Beckett, The Guardian, 7 September

Franklin Foer (2019) The Atlantic, “Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America.”

Vadim Nikitin (2019) London Review of Books, “Kleptocracy,” 41:4, 21 February.


Opulence and Frugality Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10)

Last Friday I wrote about the extravagance and opulence of the mishkan and linked it with a theory of property. The description of its opulence is repeated and expanded in this week’s portion and I want to use that depiction to discuss both the ethics and politics of wealth. The ethics discussion focuses on how one handles personal wealth. The political discussion focuses on how the community or society deals with allowing individuals to engage responsibly in the use and distribution of wealth.

The description of the opulence and its detail are mind boggling. For example, the olive oil has to be pure and used to light the mishkan eternally even though the light provides no function the vast majority of the time.

With respect to the political use of the wealth, why dress Aaron and his sons, the priests, in such expensive clothing? Why Aaron in particular who is such a passive personality? Look at what they were to wear: a choshen hanging from two golden rings attached to two golden chains. On that breastplate were attached twelve precious stones, four rows of three stones each, in gold settings, the two shoham stones on which were inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, six names on each, and the breastplate chains attached in turn to the gold rings at the corners of the ephod of gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool, and twisted fine linen, the work of a master weaver. The priest also wore a robe, a tunic of checker work, a cap and a sash.

Why the excessive finery? The answer offered – for honour and glory. (28:2) What is the honour? Aaron is sanctified. What is the glory? To become a bondsman to God and serve Him, for Aaron is tasked with carrying the names of the twelve tribes on the two stones “as a remembrance.” To remember is to glorify God. But the answer goes deeper. For attached to the ephod were the Urim and Thummim, singular terms in spite of their plural endings. What were they for?

Cutting through all the various theories, the most convincing to me is that Urim refers to the one who is cursed, the one who is found guilty, while Thummim refers to innocence. They were the means of rendering judgement and possibly the means of deciding who was innocent and who guilty, as in cleromancy. They were akin to the Tablets of Destiny worn in Babylon by Marduk, here made plural to enhance the majesty of the objects. For the priests were dressed up in all that regalia to dispense legal justice.

Honour. Glory. The majesty of justice and the law. The people needed to be impressed. They needed to be in awe of not only God, but his laws and judgements. “Thus shall Aaron carry the names of the sons of Israel in the choshen of judgment over his heart when he enters the Holy, as a remembrance before the Lord at all times.” (Exodus 28:29)

The text goes on. The robe had to be of pure wool, bordered and decorated in a specific way as if the dedicated specificity itself supplied proof of the authority and accuracy of God’s commands and judgement. The robe had to have a showplate of pure gold on which was engraved, “Holy to the Lord,” in case anyone missed the point. The text is anything but subtle. Josephus may have invested each jewel, each colour, each sash with symbolic meaning. Philo may have invested each drop of blood placed on the priest’s right ear, right thumb and large right toe as standing for purity in each word heard, in each action taken and in the path one takes in life. But the real significance was the effect of the whole.

That is how you invest people with formal authority even though Aaron demonstrated not a single sign that he could himself be a source of authentic authority. When God slew Aaron’s two sons for making a possible minor error in the fire used in the priestly rituals, Aaron was silent. He sat there and he “doan say nuttin.” And that is perhaps why he was chosen, to be a mere vessel of the divine will. His costuming was intended to communicate dignity, not his mind, not his heart, not his soul. It would be akin to making Mike Pence the head of the Supreme Court.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that when Moses is away and the people demand a visible god that Aaron is the one who creates the golden calf. What an inversion of an alpha male. Aaron is often described as a man of peace, as a humble man, as an introvert rather than an extrovert. In reality, he seems to be a pushover for wherever the wind is blowing. He had to be invested with dignity since he as himself had none. Recall that God was still torn between wanting to govern humans who simply followed edicts blindly, who were patsies, or whether He wanted his people to mature and take responsibility for themselves and what they did. Over time, God would learn and reveal that his mission was the latter. This whole parashat is evidence that God was still of a mind that all He wanted was emissaries of his own divine will. But that sensibility, ironically, was of immeasurable value in the development of and the acceptance of human responsibility. The God of revelation exhibited its own ironic truth.

The reality is that such a position gives humans enormous strength as evidenced by Holocaust survivors who gave testimony in their lives and in their faith in following Halakhah in the concentration camps in spite of all the evidence surrounding them that they had been abandoned by God. Their sense of dignity, their sense of worth, came from a higher authority even when they were stripped of all the ostentation of religious authority. But what about the few who preserved their sense of self, their sense of worth in spite of both the horrors of the camp, but without any reliance that they were any longer just funnels for a divine will? A much greater challenge!

When each type stands before the grim reaper in the face of gross and grotesque injustice, one principle stands out. They are equal in the eyes of God. And they are equal in the court of judgement. The court is ruled by the principle of equality before the law. Thus, “The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when they give the offering of the LORD, to make atonement for your souls.” (Exodus 30:15) And it goes both ways, both concerning the giving and the taking away.

Here, I eat into next week’s portion. “Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death (my italics); for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.” (Exodus 31:14) What Nehemiah found when he returned from Babylon was fish sellers and merchants selling their wares in the square before the temple on shabat. Order had to be restored. The rule of law had to be made majestic again. The people had to be purified. 3,000 Jews had to be slaughtered to make a point that would have made the Ayatollah proud. “Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.” (Exodus 32:27)

To carry out such heinous acts in the name of a divine command seems to demand rows of medals on the commanding officer and ornate garb on the priests of justice, a God that glitters and shines among them and behaves as a boastful braggadocio. It is not surprising that those who want their priests to be humble but dressed in glamour end up with leaders that are the very opposite and lead them down a path to hell.

The dialectic is not a synthesis of humility and high purpose, of gravity and grace, for they exist in tension unresolved but raised to higher levels. By reifying that tension at a very early stage of development, as Ezra and Nehemiah tried to do, you end up with empty formal authority without any authenticity. Thank God that their effort to revive the priesthood failed in the end, and that teachers, rabbis rather than priests, became the vehicle for carrying the religion forward.

Parashat Tetzave this year falls on Shabat Zakhor when the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is repeated in synagogues throughout the world. It is well to remember who Amalek represents. For Deuteronomy reminds us, “Remember what Amalek did to you on the journey, after you left Egypt.” God may be about remembering. But the Israelites were commanded also to forget. “(Y)ou should blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” (Deuteronomy 25:19)

Egyptians may have enslaved the Israelites. The Egyptian military and royal family may have resented and feared the Israelites for their proliferation. For the Egyptians, the Israelites were tools for their economy and scapegoats for the failures of the ruling class. Why was Amalek so much worse? We are commanded to remember what the Egyptians did. We are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek. Why the difference?

My thesis is that Amalek does not refer to a minor tribe who were once defeated by the Israelites, but to a type. Amalek is derived from, “am,” people, and ā-lek/’alek < עאלכ/עלכ: which translates as, “Sure, as if” you were the people of Amalek, losers on the stage of history to be cast into its dust bin.

What then is the political ethos? Here, we are not concerned with distributive justice, with the redistribution of wealth to alleviate suffering and enhance equality of opportunity. We are concerned with regarding each individual as having an equal standing before the law and the judgements of history. We are concerned with innocence and guilt and not justice as fairness. Confusing the two categories is a serious mistake with grave consequences, but that is a discussion for another day.

In the realm of legal and historical justice, the majesty and authority of those who render judgement must be enhanced even when the occupants of high office are fools. Costuming does that. Setting does that. And these are important lest we confuse the principles and the laws with the individuals occupying such a position for the historical moment. We are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek so that we can be blind in the court of justice to human differences.

When you see a statue of the Lady of Justice blindfolded, it is not simply that justice must be blind to the differences of those brought before the court, but must also be blind to the differences between the individuals holding such a high office. For the judge may be a fool, but the system of justice must retain its respect. The system of justice requires coercion on the one hand – the Lady of Justice carries a sword – and the scales of justice in which the evidence must be weighed and balanced. Most think that the blindfold is only intended to refer to the individuals charged. It is also intended to refer to the person making the determination. In that moment, we are commended to forget Amalek, to bracket that ordinary and weak humans may occupy such high office. For it is the people who bear the responsibility for ensuring and respecting the majesty of both the court of law and the court of memory.

There is an economic dimension to this segment, and, as I wrote above, it is not about distributive justice. Rather, it is about ensuring that the surplus wealth of a community is held and managed by a transcendent body, by a federal reserve as it were, and neither by individuals, nor, even worse, by a populist mob. Central banking, financial regulation and public finance must be held by an independent authority, independent of popular will.

I was told the other day, to my chagrin, that the world’s financial system was controlled by the Rothschilds. I do not believe the person was antisemitic. He was simply your typical conspiracy theorist about central bankers. He is an anarchist who would reclaim the gold held at the centre to guarantee business exchanges and redistribute it to the people so they can melt it down and make golden calves. The fierce pugilists of the populist right do not trust centralized and independent banking. They would tear down the mishkan and redistribute the wealth to the twelve tribes.

But if there is to be a nation-state and not just an aggregate of grubbing individualists, then it is important that a nation has a central institution that is a repository of wealth and that carries with it majesty and authority to dispense financial as well as criminal justice. It must be a repository of memory while always remembering the people it serves. When a federal reserve or a central bank forgets that mission, it allows its pomposity to go to its head.

We are thrust between the Scylla of populism and the Charybdis of plutocratic arrogance. It was the genius of the Israelites and their God that they created an institution designed to ride through the storms that could tear the nation asunder. Populists are hypocrites who would hold two opposite positions and ignore the difference between the Scylla and the Charybdis. In the case of Andrew Jackson, who railed against Alexander Hamilton’s insistence on the necessity for a federal reserve, he hated paper money but wanted to give the states unlimited authority to print as much of it as they wanted. He hated the idea of gold-backed currency but exhibited an unlimited passion for gold. What he wanted, in reality, as Donald Trump does today, is to accrue all economic authority to himself so that he alone could decide how to use, and, therefore, abuse, a nation’s wealth.

In the end, the most important feature of the mishkan and the majesty and opulence of its wealth is to serve as an institution without which there cannot even be distributive justice.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address and Migrants Part IV: Walls

Walls keep people out. Walls keep people in. Walls are revered – think of the Western or Wailing Wall, the Kotel, in Jerusalem, the remaining structure of the Hebrews’ great temple to their God. What is often forgotten in the reverence for any wall is why it became sacred. As told in the Book of Ezra/Nehemiah in Ezra’s story of the return of the exiles from Babylon under the protection of Cyrus the Great, and as retold by the prophet Nehemiah, the Jerusalem wall was not only an instrument for physical protection but was viewed as a way to separate Jews from gentiles given the rate of intermarriage that Ezra and Nehemiah found upon their return.

When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he found that, “the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the land…they have taken from their daughters for themselves and for their sons, and mixed the holy seed with the peoples of the land.” (Ezra 9:1-2) This is how chapter 13 of the final book of the Torah ends, in praise of a wall of ethnic and linguistic separation and division.

1.On that day they read in the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and therein was found written, that an Ammonite and a Moabite should not enter into the assembly of God for ever;

2 because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, to curse them; howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing.

3 And it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the alien mixture.

For Nehemiah saw that: “(23) the Jews that had married women of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab; (24) and their children spoke half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people.”

Nehemiah, a former assimilated Jew and high official in the Persian imperial administration, returned to the land of Judah for three reasons: 1) to ameliorate the deplorable physical conditions of both Jerusalem and its Jewish community; 2) to provide physical protection from, not only the Ammonites, but also the Samaritans who had not been deported to Babylon and saw themselves as the true heirs of Torah; neither group viewed Jerusalem as the capital. Perhaps most importantly, Nehemiah returned 3) to re-establish the ethnic identity and purity of the heirs of Judah. (Ch. 13)

The building of the wall around the Temple was viewed as a physical, religious arrier and a demographic barrier. Nehemiah “built with one hand, while holding daggers in the other” (Nehemiah 4:11) while resisting what he saw as the challenge of intermarriage to the ethnic purity of the Jewish people. Ironically, the book Ezra/Nehemiah was written in Aramaic; the only other book of scripture not written in Hebrew was the Book of Daniel. Yet, Nehemiah raged against what he insisted was the widespread inability of the children of intermarriages to speak Hebrew.

Is this reminiscent of some contemporary populist nationalist politicians? “We Hungarians have a different way of thinking. Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.” (Viktor Orbán) Can bans on intermarriage be far behind?

Walls are so often symbolic. I know it is almost a cliché, but Robert Frost in Mending Wall is always worth quoting, if only to ensure even more that he is not endorsing the phrase he quotes from his next-door landowner, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

“Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.”

In Toronto, we built a drywall between our lawn, which is about 30” higher than the street, and the sidewalk. People passing sometimes stop to sit on it. I do not mind, except when they leave their coffee cups behind. Or their bags of dog pooh. That wall does not divide but reinforces. It is not massive like the brick retaining wall that supports the terrace in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Carlton D. Wall House in Plymouth, Michigan, but it is a fortification rather than a separation barrier.

Think of how walls are now denigrated for dividing what people currently believe should be united. Frank Lloyd Wright was a different kind or architectural prophet in introducing the open plan for the modern home in places where functions should be linked rather than separated. In contemporary housing design, we have taken the walls down between our kitchens, our dining rooms and living rooms. What walls do is never unite.

Walls fail to protect all the time, even if at first they appear to do so. I am in Mexico and I am reminded that,

“Hernán Cortés’ men met a wall

of arrows, then turned and ran.

Montezuma’s men met a wall of armor,

wept, then stoned their chief off the wall

for helping the conquistadores.”

The Walls by Ray Gonzalez

The reality is that humans build too many walls and not enough bridges. Haruki Murakami said it well in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize in 2009. “We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs. We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark, too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth, strength. We must not let the system control us — create who we are. It is we who created the system.”

The introduction to Virgil’s great twelve-part epic poem, the Aeneid, that serves as a fictional justification (or condemnation?) of the Roman Empire, ends the verse referring to the “lofty walls of Rome.” Or is it the “walls of lofty Rome,” as the great classicist Daniel Mendelsohn would translate it. If the first, walls were revered in Rome to keep the barbarians out. That is how Hadrian, the emperor who succeeded his cousin, Trajan, read it. Further, he first confirmed to himself that he would be Trajan’s successor by using the Aeneid to predict his fate when he read the line at which he arbitrarily opened the poem, “I recognize that he is the king of Rome.”

In the second century AD, he built the 73 mile Hadrian’s Wall through what would become northern England to keep the Picts, the wild men further north, from invading southward. Hadrian believed in lofty walls, not a lofty Rome, for civilization needed protection from barbarians rather than further extension to spread the sense of law and justice to the rest of the world that so elevated the Roman people. For Hadrian never felt secure either in his personal role, earned by inheritance and good fortune rather than merit, or in the mission of Rome to spread civilization to the rest of the world. Hadrian, believing that his mission had been imposed upon him “by divine instruction” focused on keeping the empire intact.

Walls can be monuments to insecurity, perhaps initially justified, as with the walls that separate Israel from the West Bank, Israel from Gaza and Israel from the Sinai and the threat from terrorists, and, I would add, illegitimately, from refugee claimants from Sudan and Eritrea. The Great Wall of China in the end never kept the Mongol hordes from invading and conquering China. Over six decades in the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan swept into China, crushed the Yuan Dynasty and established the Mongol Empire.

Walls are not only built to keep people out. They are built to keep people in. Think of the Berlin Wall the construction of which started on 13 August 1961 to prevent the people of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from fleeing to the West. This symbol of the Cold War and of communist oppression was dismantled on 9 November 1889.

Walls are not just physical structures. They serve as barriers to ideas and values that threaten a military order built on sand. Walls surround prisons and concentration camps. Walls restrict freedom of movement physically and mentally. They are not just barriers against the threat of violence, but are ways to keep those outside walls from looking in and observing the coercion, the exploitation, the outright sadism, that goes on behind those walls. (See Shane Bauer’s American Prisons.)

However, not all walls are imposed from without to imprison those within. Some erect walls around their minds to keep new ideas out. These are often the strongest walls, the ones placed within one’s own head and heart. Then you live a life of nostalgia carrying every memory, both small and large, like stones and building blocks in a wall. That wall is stronger than one built of masonry. It is very difficult to breach and often impenetrable. The best that one can do is not butt your head against the wall directly, but rather pull the stones out from the bottom that support the wall.

“Today, we have a true democracy in Iran. Parties, newspapers and the media are free in this country, and all authorities must approach elections with an open mind. The more our mind is open, the readier we will be to prepare the groundwork for the presence of all thoughts, parties and factions.” The latter is a sentiment with which I fully agree. If only the facts on which it was premised were accurate! If only President Hassan Rouhani sincerely meant the words he uttered in Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Square when he addressed the Iranian people on the fortieth anniversary of the 1979 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini coup!