Commentary on Bereshit 2

Commentary on Bereshit 2


Howard Adelman

In my comment on commentary last week, I set out a few of the premises of MY reading of the Torah:

  1. I believe in doing what commentators have done over the centuries, retelling the story in my own words.
  2. The story is about creation, about coming to be, about the beginning of that process through the interaction of God and earthlings.
  3. I pick up on one stream of interpretation that sees this creative activity, once nature has been organized, as the result of a partnership of a non-material Being and earthlings: “Let us create…” The process of creation is the story of the creation of two worlds, heaven and earth.
  4. I then take from this stream another even rarer stream – that the story is about God becoming; God not only creates history in partnership with man, but creates Himself in the process. God is
  5. Though I told the tale as if God is characterized as masculine without explication, this is also a premise that will be developed and explicated.
  6. I am fully within the tradition in seeing the narrative as being about tov and ra, goodness and evil.
  7. Then I became really idiosyncratic in depicting the character of God, for, in my understanding, God has the hubris to congratulate himself on what he does as Good, and in the case of creating human beings, as “very good,” a pronouncement that will soon prove to be not only very incorrect, but the first lesson: Let others pronounce and recognize the quality of what you do. It is not only a curse to make that pronouncement oneself, but it is itself a moral failing.
  8. So as I read the story, God in the process of co-creation has to also create the moral world and to make Himself as a moral being who has faith and compassion and a capacity for respect and reverence for the sanctity of life.
  9. But as I will again try to show, He only does so primarily through the mistakes of humans living in history as embodied creatures.
  10. God begins the process of creation by giving order to chaos; since humans are made in the image of God, they too have a responsibility to give order to chaos.

Ironically, as I will try to show, chaos and order turn out to be, not polar opposites which admit of degrees, but a process whereby chaos follows from order as well as precedes it. Put simply, as soon as we think we are on the verge of creating a new world order, beware for we will be introduced to a new type of chaos. This interpretation is offered, not because I have mastered Hebrew and Aramaic, know the Torah intimately and have thoroughly studied the commentators. It should be very evident that I do not write this commentary as a result of any claim to be an expert on either the text or previous commentators, but it is the way I find coherence and meaning in the text as well as a correspondence between what I read and how I interpret it.

The narrative does not move forward because men have an inherent propensity towards evil in the most customary interpretation. The new chaos emerges out of the limitations of what has previously been created. But, as in most traditional interpretations, it is about responsibility, beginning with God assuming all responsibility for what happens and assuming, because He is the creator, it must be good. Human beings initially assume none of the moral responsibility, but also assume that because God was the creator, what takes place must be good. Both have to learn that the true source of evil lies within this nearsightedness, this myopic view of the world.

So how do we reconcile Chapter 1 and chapter 2, for as everyone knows who reads the text, they appear to be contradictory? Chapter 2 begins with the consecration of the seventh day as a day of rest. The whole text is a process of embedding in the repetition of time, in embodied existence, the metaphor of the Torah story. But look how it starts, in complete contradiction to what I just wrote. Instead of a dynamic story about creation, that process is said to be finished; the heavens and earth were a totally completed product. The Torah is then not a tale of a process of both Heaven and Earth coming to be, but of what has been completed. Further, instead of worshiping and celebrating that dynamic process, the most celebrated day of the week emerges, shabat, the day that is said to be about rest. Further, it is rest, not creativity, that is made holy.

But read the text again. On shabat, God “rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” Not from the process. It was a day to look back, to reflect, to analyze what had just been completed. As we shall see, this applies to every new lesson and is why we read and re-read the text in an annual cycle. It is that reflection, that evaluation, which is holy. For it is a very different order of creativity, not one which ends as each of the first six days did in dogmatic conviction, but one which will challenge those dogmatic convictions in the most fundamental way. And the challenge is not one which proceeds sequentially – He created this, then He created that. Rather, it is about subordination rather than conjunction. Instead of this and that, we find: when this then that.  Each action has consequences.

Further, the Creator has a new name, Yahweh rather than just Elohim, the Lord God and not just God. He has a name with two yuds and two hehs, a God that doubles up on Himself, a world which is abbreviated and to the point as a yud, and open to interpretation as a heh. Instead of a story of coming into being, of creation, of bara, it is a story of fashioning, of constructing, of yatsar, in fact, of reconstructing. Words do not bring the world of material being into existence. Rather, through massaging words themselves, existence is given form and order. We are presented with a moral rather than a material order, the world of adam and not just adamah. The action, the verb is followed by its noun form. To die – a process – is followed by death, a final state. Ironically, that very fixed state will be the source of a new stage of creativity.

In reflection, as in commentary, the same story must be re-told, but now from a retrospective perspective. That retrospective focused on the last day of creation after God turned a planet into a thriving greenhouse from a moonscape. But suddenly instead of simple interpretation, we get a midrash, a story about the original story. In this version, God hives off a Garden called the Garden of Eden, seemingly rich and perfect in every way – most perfect because there is no apparent death, no awareness of death, just the richness of nature.

Second, instead of this day of rest being about a celebration about what had been created, God continues to create, but what God creates on the day of rest, on the day of reflection, on the day of re-examination, are not dichotomies and opposites, but particulars: the Garden of Eden first, then soon two unique and very different trees. But first the creation of earthlings is re-envisioned.

It is a very specific process: “the Lord God formed a man[c] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” It is also self-evidently a different process. First, man is formed, that is fashioned and shaped rather than brought into being through words, So the dichotomy of male and female become a story of priority and subordination. Because we are now in the realm of reflection, in the realm of historical reconstruction of what has already taken place, in the realm of midrash, Second, instead of apparent dichotomy, it is our reconstruction of original creation that is taking place. Equality is transformed into a moral hierarchy through a different kind of temporal ordering such as occurs in dreams as well as nightmares. Third, the dichotomy is internalized, for instead of two from one, we have one out of two, man made from shaping his earthliness at the same time as he is infused with God’s spirit. This will be a story not about the coming to be of a natural creature alongside all the other animals, but of a unique being, about what it is like to be made in the image of God.

But first the two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, two unique trees among all those that were created. Then the Garden of Eden is described as having four headwaters of one river. And we should recognize that we are being introduced to the four orders of interpretation, the four lenses through which the recreation of what has come about materially can be understood on the reflective plain. They are the headwaters of creative reflection:

  1. Havilah – gold, but also the precious onyx and aromatic resin – interpretation must be rich; it must smell right and sensible; it must pass the smell test;
  2. Gihon – comprehensiveness;
  3. Tigris – the boundary river for interpretation is not arbitrary, but has limits and is an example of order itself, not of sequential order but of framing;
  4. Euphrates – the longest of the rivers in Western Asia, u-fra’-tez, “the good and aboundingriver and, together with the Tigris, the defining river.

So in addition to interpretation being rich and sensible, in addition to it being comprehensive, it must have an order in space, a frame clearly defining an area of reflection, but, as well, an unfolding in time that goes on and on, an openness, a heh and not just a yud. We are now in a specific location of earth, in western Asia, but boundaried on the east to define the world of the Middle East.

We have our frame. What happens? Man is placed in the garden. Though resting from making the world, it is clearly a garden of enormous richness. The conversion of the natural world into a civilized and ordered one must be reconsidered, must be reflected upon, for that is the work of Eden. That is the work of shabat. But in doing this work, man is given a very specific warning – not a command. “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (TKGE), for when you eat from it, you will surely die.” But, of course, as in all such narratives, a warning is merely a prediction of what is to come.

Then we have a sudden disjunction, or, at least, the appearance of one. God discovers everything is not very good. For, as He observes, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helpmeet suitable for him.” Adam does not seem to feel he is alone. God recognizes it. But why is woman characterized as a helpmeet, an ezer to and for him? Does this simply mean she is a helper, or does it mean she is someone who will help him meet both himself as an other, both to see himself as an object of reflection and not just an agent, and the other as an agent and not just an objectification of himself? If eating of the TKGE means having sex, why is there a warning of the great risk of sex?

Suddenly another switch. We are back in the natural world of the garden. Or so it appears. Adam is doing his proper work, giving order to the world in terms of language. He is a botanist and zoologist naming the various species of plants and animals. Using language, he is re-creating the world as experienced in front of us into an intellectual order, into a taxonomy. But he is a nerd who does not even have the sense to know he is alone. But his dreams tell him. In his dreams, God took one of his ribs and made woman. Woman is made from tsela, from man’s protective but fragile shield, from that which gives the body its structure, from that which embodies flesh and internal organs. Woman was seen and imagined as a projection of one side of man. Which side? Surely not consciousness, not the scientific side that went around the garden naming the animals and plants. Not the conscious side that saw the world as objects needing to be ordered. It must be the side of which he himself was not conscious, the protected side, the hidden side, the side that he did not recognize, the side that felt but was not even recognized by the other side. Adam did not even know he felt lonely.

So in his dreams, Eve was projected to be a person of feeling, an .objectification of a side of himself that he did not recognize. Eve was feeling; he was thought. In his objectification, Eve was not recognized as a subject, an agent in her own right. And he did not recognize himself as having feelings, as having passions, as a man who would leave home and marry and thereby make himself whole again. Man, not woman, is a bifurcated being, a being with no intercommunication between his right side and his left side, a being who does not know he has desires, but in his conscious life thinks that he is only a scientist who gives order to the world by means of language.

As an arrogant aside, when I read the Talmudic commentaries, it seems that virtually all the commentators are as pedantic and nerdy and oblivious to the plain meaning of the text as Adam was to his own feelings. This is not entirely accurate. Many of the commentators do note specific technicalities of the text which have a mine of revelations. For example, Rabbi Eliezer, the son of Rabi Jose the Galilean, noted the rhythm within chapter two moving back and forth between what he thought was generality and particularity, much as I described the shift from chapter one to chapter two. Where I described disjunctions, he noted connections. And there are connections, but not simply a connection between generality and particularity, but between a depiction of a state of being and the content of that state.

For example, verse 6 described a mist or fog rising from the earth and watering the whole garden while verse 7 moves to God forming man out of the dust of that same earth. I read this as first offering a clue that this is a dream sequence – we are in a fog. In the content of that dream sequence, God is seen as making man alone, not man and woman, and in the dream, man is an earthling into whom the breath of the holy spirit must be breathed. That breath gives life to the “dead” being that Adam has thus far revealed himself to be. In the dream, there is the world that the conscious self does not recognize, his embodied being, his being as a man of desire and passions, a being when the air and the earth combined to form fire, to form what can never be given form, fire and passion, a world that is first glimpsed in the fog of dreams.

In this type of pilpul of literalness, of the detailed analysis of the bark and the leaves of each individual tree, we do miss the forest for a tree. We miss the sweep and scope of the tale, the richness, and sensuousness, is missed, the real understanding of the headwaters of the long river of life are be missed. It begins with the period before the conjoining of man and woman when both, not just Adam lacked any shame.

So sex, pain, temptation, desire and most of all death – not the objects of consciousness but the subjective state of experience – now has to be brought forth.

Next week: Sex and the Origin of Shame


Commentary on the first six books of Genesis

Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1.2-6:8)


Howard Adelman

This week Jews (and some others) begin the annual re-reading of the Torah. And the beginning is my very favourite part. Why? Because it is about what we are given as gender beings and how that forms the foundation of our ethics. We are born equal, man and woman; God created men and women as equals. But not in man’s head. Man has the delusion that he was born first and that woman is but a physical extension of a man. While man does not take responsibility for his own penis and sexual drives, he presumes woman is merely an appendage and physical extension of himself to serve him. This inversion of how man regards his own body and how he regards a woman’s body are the foundation of ethics and what it means to say a man is born in sin. It not because he is sexually driven; rather, it is because he does not take responsibility for his sexual drives, for his embodiment. Further, he turns a woman, not into an object, but into an extension of his own agency and does not respect her as an agent in her own right.

Take the issue of revelation which supposedly divides the Orthodox – or, at least, most of them – from the non-Orthodox in a debate over whether the Torah as written is the word of God transcribed on the page or the collation of a number of writers over years when the importance of the Torah is that, as one reads and examines the text, the text reveals to us profound truths, beginning with the roots of sin and the need for ethical norms and their compass. The usual division of Bereshit starts with the first seven days (1:1-2:2) and then moves to the Garden of Eden Story (2:3-3:23), then to the story of Cain and Abel (4:1-4:26) and ends with the prelude to flood (5:1-6:8). I want to cover all four sections in one commentary.

Though the narrative begins in cosmology in the discussions of light emerging from darkness, the emergence of the sky, the earth and the heavenly bodies, and then the creation of the fish of the sea, the birds in the air and the animals on earth and finally, the relatively new species, human beings, the significance of the story has nothing to say about how the world was created. Rather, it is a set up. Nature is good. God says it over and over again. Then God created humans and, understandably, needed a day of rest.  

When we throw light on nature, when we separate the darkness and allow light to bathe over not only the earth but even the deep depths of the ocean floor, one has to be amazed. Just watch an episode of National Geographic or the BBC series on deep water exploration. What a fantastic place we live on! It is truly a wonder to behold. By the fourth day, we have a cosmos that gives us our days and nights, our weeks and our years, the rhythms of time in accordance with which we live. And even when monsters and wild beasts came into being; it was all perceived as good.

And then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” (verse 27)  So begins the problem and the paradoxes. Man is created in God’s image even though God has no visible presence. But what is clear is that he created both male and female. (verse 28) And then we have the first blessing and the first commandment: “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” Being created in God’s image is not about physical appearances but about the human role as an agent – a creator AND a ruler. “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (verse 32) In ch.2:3, God rested and blessed the 7th day as He looked with satisfaction on what He created. 

But not for long! Then the dissolution set in. God discovers for the first time, and it will not be the last time, that He made a mistake. For what he thought of and pronounced as good was no such thing. Why? 

We then move onto the second segment and read the second story of man’s and woman’s creation, and in this story they are not created equal. For this is the story as the male imagines it. Man is the product, not of a virgin birth, but of a femaleless birth. He is made sui generis out of earth and water and air that is used to inflate him. And then God created the Garden of Eden with all kinds of trees, but two special trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is a huge garden fed by four great rivers: the Tigris, Euphrates, Pishon (where the wealth of the earth’s resources, especially gold and precious gems, can be found) and the Gibon (the Nile ?) that runs through the Cush. The Garden extends from Babylon or Iraq down through the Arabian Peninsula where Noah’s son, Shem, and his son, Joktan (the Ishmaelites) (Genesis 25:18) will settle, down into East Africa where Noah’s descendent, Cush, the son of Ham, will settle. 

God issues the second commandment, not to eat and enjoy, but rather not to eat, specifically not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If man eats thereof he will realize that, unlike God in whose image he is made, man will know that death is certain. Further, man in the Garden of Eden did not recognize he was lonely; God observes that. God pronounces that as not good. In the second imaginative version of creating woman, woman is fashioned out of Adam’s rib, but for a specific function, to be man’s helper and aide de camp. Rulership is perceived as extending over women. Third, man is given a job. He becomes a biological taxonomist giving names to the different species of animals and fish and birds and perhaps even the insects in the billions. Perhaps this was the reason he did not even recognize his emotional need for a woman – he was so caught up in his mental work of naming and imitating God as a creator. Finally, it was observed that man and woman were together and were naked and were not ashamed.

Chapter 3 tells the story of what is often called “The Fall”, on the supposition that until this moment Man and Woman lived in a state of grace. But if in man’s imagination he was born not from woman, that woman was created as a projection of himself, and in service to himself, then the seeds of trouble had already been planted. We are introduced to the Serpent, a new character in the story. Who is the Serpent? He is shrewd. He is a wild beast. He is erect. Unlike other animals, he speaks. He is masculine. And who does the Serpent talk to? Not man, but woman. And what does he say? He does not behave like man walking around the Garden as a biologist naming everything and therefore serving as a surrogate in bringing things into being in the realm of knowledge. Instead, he behave like Socrates sceptically asks a question. 

 “Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” 2 The woman replied to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. 3 It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.'” 4 And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die, 5 but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who knows good and bad.” 6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths.


Why were they embarrassed? What were they ashamed of? They had disobeyed a commandment. But the disobedience had been very pleasurable. Further, they became wiser in some sense in taking pleasure from themselves as sexual beings. The serpent had been correct. They did not die from eating the fruit. Only their innocence died. They became ashamed of their bodies. Why? Because, commandments and ethics did not determine what they did; their bodily desires did. So they recognized who the serpent was. This erect figure, this male penis, was not an independent voice, but the voice of male desire for which the man did not take responsibility. Just as the woman was seen as an extension of his own body, the penis became an independent agency for which man did not take responsibility.


Both were internally conflicted, each torn inside and confused. When God sought them out, they hid. God clued in. He immediately knew that they had eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God knew that they had the sexual relations, those relations that Bill Clinton denied he had had with Monica Lewis. God asked, “Did you eat of the fruit that I had forbidden you to eat? The gender wars were now on. The male said, “She did it. She put me up to it.” So really, God, it is not only her fault. It is Your fault. For you created her as company for me. The woman was not much better in refusing to take responsibility. The serpent, his penis, tricked me, she said. So God addressed the penis directly and said that henceforth, the penis would no longer stand erect but crawl on the belly of man. Henceforth, this now shrivelled and wrinkled piece of flesh would be the source of enmity between man and woman and the male and female children of man and woman that will spout from their loins. She will strike at the head of man, at man who attempts to rule over woman by guile and rational cleverness. Man will strike back, nip at her heel and forever undermine her as he attempts to seduce her and then rule over her. In spite of that, her desire will be directed towards him. As a result, she will have children, but bring them forth only in pain, and not simply physical pain.


As for man, no more would he simply be the biologist and taxonomist, but he would, like his scrawny shrivelled penis, be cursed and henceforth survive only through physical toil in an earth no longer bountiful but full of thorns and thistles. Man would have to become a farmer and a herdsman and work all his life by the sweat of his brow. You thought you were made from dust so to dust shall you be returned. And Man named his wife Eve – no longer a generic name but a particular name, but as a generic name in a different sense than as a class term, the mother of all of humanity and even of everything that lives. Woman would henceforth be Gaia. And man would henceforth not be allowed a life of leisure, simply living off the fruit of the land.


The third segment of Bereshit begins with Chapter 4, the story of Cain and Abel. For if the story of cosmology is a tale of awe and wonder and the beauty and bounty of nature, and if the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is the story of the inner conflict within each between Desire and Life and between not only the two of them and between Desire and Life, but between Desire that envisions man as God living off the earth and ruling over that bounty and Desire for Woman and becoming one flesh, and between Life that aspires to immortality and Life that simply endures the hardship of survival, the story of Cain and Abel moves into a new struggle, the struggle for recognition between two alpha males and between two different ways of life bequeathed to humans who no longer live in the Garden of Eden. It is the story of emerging from the second stage of what began to be called in modern political theory, ‘the state of nature’.


Cain, the eldest was a farmer. Abel was a shepherd, a herdsman. But the cowboy and the farmer could not be friends. Each wanted exclusive recognition of his rights. For their ways of life were pretty incompatible. One needed fences. The other needed open pasture. One life meant being on the move. The other meant settled life. Each offered the best of what he produced as a sacrifice to seek recognition for his way of life at the same time demonstrating that they were still above the work of mere survival and wanted divine recognition. God gave it to the shepherd, not the farmer.


God had said that the farmer could do fine without recognition as the superior way of life, as the way of life worthy of divine sanction, but the farmer did not want to live on the margins of a pastureland, as in the pampas of Argentina, or to lose the status as God’s chosen imitator. It was not the man dedicated to domesticated animal husbandry who killed the farmer, as one might imagine, but the farmer who killed the peaceful shepherd. Farming became the dominant mode of earning a living and herding animals and sheep or camels was thrust off into the margins. Agriculture became the central route to building civilization and cities. When God asked Cain where his brother was, Cain, unlike his parents, did not seek to hide but replied equivocally: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”


Ironically, his smart-assed reply revealed the very core of the ethical code necessary to avoid murder and mayhem. As punishment, the man of the soil who only wanted to settle in one place, was made a nomad, driven to seeking more fertile soil always elsewhere. He became the unsettled settler, the migrant par excellence and not just a nomad. He went to live in the Land of Nod (ארץ נוד), East of Eden, the land of wanderers, for “nod” is the root of the Hebrew word, “to wander” ((לנדוד). Ironically, the desire and need to wander would become, not so much the source of agricultural settlements, but the foundation of cities where man lives uprooted from the soil as neither a farmer nor a herdsman.


What is the mark of Cain that God put on him to protect him from murder? Cain was made into a fugitive and wanderer alienated from nature and destined to live in cities. To live in a city, man requires protection. No more could a man be recognized for what he did and how he brought forth the means of survival by his labour. The mark of Cain is recognition that man must be a citizen of a polity to be protected; he can no longer rely on his own devices; he must have membership in a political collectivity. This is his mark of Cain. He can enjoy no freedom without such a membership. So in the fight for recognition of one way of life over another, neither wins. A new form of polity centred on the city and civilization comes into being where man must be recognized as a member of a people and ruled by a government in order to survive. Ironically, the mark of Cain is citizenship. It is the mark that means man has totally left the state of nature and entered into the world of polities. So Cain and His wife bore a son, Enoch, who founded a city. And another son born of Adam and Eve, Seth, gave birth to another line of humanity.


And so humanity grew and multiplied and settled the world until Noah and his sons Shem, Ham and Japheth came along. The fourth segment of Bereshit is told following the alienation from the wonder and awe of the beauty of nature, following the discovery of treachery and duplicity rooted in a failure to take responsibility for ourselves as embodied creatures, and then following the war between different ways of life and the search for recognition of the superiority of one over the other only to end up with murder and the emergence of a new way of life, living in cities and a polity where each carries a mark of identification, the artifact of citizenship, as the means of protection. But civilization will breed classes, those who sacrifice themselves for the future and develop their capacities and means of sustenance, and those who look sceptically upon the whole effort of service and duty to family and nation and country and simply want to get satisfaction from life.


Then who were the Nephilim, divine beings, the heroes of old, men of renown, who cohabited with the daughters of men and who made wickedness the prevailing mode of life on earth, and who made God regret that he had created life on earth altogether so that he wanted to start all over again to correct his mistake and decide to bring forth the flood? The Nephilim are neither those who achieve mastery over men and themselves nor those who are self indulgent. Why are these Nephilim equated with those who fell who are associated with wickedness, children of God and fallen angels, or, alternatively, those who cause others to fall, giant Samurai, heroic warriors of a bygone age worshipped in epic tales?


The Nephilim are both. They are the knights of the roundtable, chivalrous men whom women idolize. They are gods and God Himself becomes God si love. True love becomes amor where the new ethical basis is between the idealistic knights who dedicate their might to an abstract ideal and the ladies who worship those knights. Knights were not wicked in the sense of bestial, lewd beings in pursuit of the satisfaction of a night of passion. Rather, they were the epitome of courage and valour, of honesty and integrity, loyalty and fealty and dedicated in a totally pure way to the women to whom they gave their troth. Women were not perceived as physical extensions of man but as a source of inspiration. They are put on a pedestal and, in turn, appreciated as an ideal. Life itself becomes etherealized. And man is no longer in bondage to man but in bondage to a heaven-sent partnership that has nothing to do with the passions of the flesh and everything to do with mutual recognition, with grace, with mutual protection and mutual fulfillment in an ideal conception of life.


Why would God see this as wickedness? Why are heroic fearsome giants (Numbers 13:32-33) viewed as a source of distress and discomfort? Because in a land of heroes and romanticism, in a land built on the premise of romantic love as the source of ethics, in a land built on an ideal of purity and perfection as the fullest expression of life, that land devours its inhabitants. That is not a land rooted in the family and in children, but in ethereal passion and self-sacrifice for abstract ideals. These children of God become the real source of the virus of wickedness and repression. And ordinary humans are seen as grasshoppers or cockroaches, inyenzi, insects to be exterminated where the rule of law and of civilized men is sacrificed in service to an abstract ideal and dream of perfection.


So God will strike first and drown all but the select few.


So it is no surprise that the Haftorah reading comes from Isaiah, for Ashkenazim, Isaiah 42:5-43:10. God opts for nationhood and not heroism, for enlightenment and not self-repression in stark opposition to idolatry of any kind. God becomes dedicated to innovation and not nostalgia where the citizens of cities will lift up their voices. The warriors will not be knights of the roundtable but, rather, the Lord will go forth like a warrior, raising a war cry and prevailing against idolatry. And so we are given an apocalyptic vision of a God in labour giving birth to the new:


  הֶחֱשֵׁיתִי, מֵעוֹלָם–אַחֲרִישׁ, אֶתְאַפָּק; כַּיּוֹלֵדָה אֶפְעֶה, אֶשֹּׁם וְאֶשְׁאַף יָחַד.

14 I have long time held My peace, I have been still, and refrained Myself; now will I cry like a travailing woman, gasping and panting at once.

טו  אַחֲרִיב הָרִים וּגְבָעוֹת, וְכָל-עֶשְׂבָּם אוֹבִישׁ; וְשַׂמְתִּי נְהָרוֹת לָאִיִּים, וַאֲגַמִּים אוֹבִישׁ.

15 I will make waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbs; and I will make the rivers islands, and will dry up the pools.

טז  וְהוֹלַכְתִּי עִוְרִים, בְּדֶרֶךְ לֹא יָדָעוּ–בִּנְתִיבוֹת לֹא-יָדְעוּ, אַדְרִיכֵם; אָשִׂים מַחְשָׁךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם לָאוֹר, וּמַעֲקַשִּׁים לְמִישׁוֹר–אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים, עֲשִׂיתִם וְלֹא עֲזַבְתִּים.

16 And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not, in paths that they knew not will I lead them; I will make darkness light before them, and rugged places plain. These things will I do, and I will not leave them undone.

יז  נָסֹגוּ אָחוֹר יֵבֹשׁוּ בֹשֶׁת, הַבֹּטְחִים בַּפָּסֶל; הָאֹמְרִים לְמַסֵּכָה, אַתֶּם אֱלֹהֵינוּ.  {פ}

17 They shall be turned back, greatly ashamed, that trust in graven images, that say unto molten images: ‘Ye are our gods.’ {P}

יח  הַחֵרְשִׁים, שְׁמָעוּ; וְהַעִוְרִים, הַבִּיטוּ לִרְאוֹת.

18 Hear, ye deaf, and look, ye blind, that ye may see.

יט  מִי עִוֵּר כִּי אִם-עַבְדִּי, וְחֵרֵשׁ כְּמַלְאָכִי אֶשְׁלָח; מִי עִוֵּר כִּמְשֻׁלָּם, וְעִוֵּר כְּעֶבֶד יְהוָה.

19 Who is blind, but My servant? Or deaf, as My messenger that I send? Who is blind as he that is wholehearted, and blind as the LORD’S servant?

כ  ראית (רָאוֹת) רַבּוֹת, וְלֹא תִשְׁמֹר; פָּקוֹחַ אָזְנַיִם, וְלֹא יִשְׁמָע.

20 Seeing many things, thou observest not; opening the ears, he heareth not.

כא  יְהוָה חָפֵץ, לְמַעַן צִדְקוֹ; יַגְדִּיל תּוֹרָה, וְיַאְדִּיר.

21 The LORD was pleased, for His righteousness’ sake, to make the teaching great and glorious.

כב  וְהוּא, עַם-בָּזוּז וְשָׁסוּי, הָפֵחַ בַּחוּרִים כֻּלָּם, וּבְבָתֵּי כְלָאִים הָחְבָּאוּ; הָיוּ לָבַז וְאֵין מַצִּיל, מְשִׁסָּה וְאֵין-אֹמֵר הָשַׁב.

22 But this is a people robbed and spoiled, they are all of them snared in holes, and they are hid in prison-houses; they are for a prey, and none delivereth, for a spoil, and   none saith: ‘Restore.’

(Hebrew-English Bible/Mechon-Mamre)


But they can and will be redeemed.

Hannah Arendt: A Review Essay

Hannah Arendt: A Review Essay

The movie was directed by Margarethe von Trotta and co-authored with Pam Katz


Howard Adelman

The movie is about love. It is about friendship. It is about the deliberate effort to connect the private and the public life that so characterizes all the films of Margarethe von Trotta. The character and role of Adolph Eichmann as interpreted by Hannah Arendt is the core of the film, but the larger issue is her concept and theory about the banality of evil. A subsidiary theme inadequately examined is her view of the role of the Jewish Councils in cooperating with the Nazis. A glance in passing is also paid to her perhaps most controversial claim about the purpose of trials in dealing with crimes against humanity and the nature of justice. Underlying the whole biopic is Hannah Arendt`s conception of thought, not just philosophical thought, but thinking per se and the role of the intellectual. The movie commands that we reflect on the nature and role of biopics in general.

In my son Jeremy’s book, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, he describes Heinrich Blücher, Hannah Arendt’s husband, at a period when he was seducing the minds of all his young followers and the bodies of his female ones in the thirties with his Marxist arguments. His conquests included Albert’s sister, Ursula. It was a habit that the movie suggests persisted when Blücher was in America married to Hannah Arendt. Another habit also persisted. Jeremy writes, “Many years later, Heinrich surfaced once more in New York as Heinrich Blücher, the husband of Hannah Arendt; the years had passed, but the outward affection for didactic certainties had not. (my italics) In Paris, Blücher had succeeded in confirming many of Hirschmann’s (sic! – spelled in the original way) doubts about Communism; three decades later, it struck Hirschman that the air of conviction that hovered over Blücher and Arendt, and to which Americans were flocking in search of answers, had still not lifted.” (106) By then, of course, he was no longer a non-Stalinist communist or even a fellow traveller but, in fact, a staunch anti-communist supposedly critical of all essentialist thinking. But you would not know either from watching the film.

In Hannah Arendt, Barbara Sukowa who had worked with von Trotta before and who played Lola in a Fassbinder flick and the good-hearted prostitute in Berlin Alexanderplatz, is brilliant in passionately portraying Arendt’s affection for didactic certainties held with a haughty air of intellectual conviction. Heinrich Blücher (HB), played by the tall and imposing Axel Milberg, is reduced to a turtle dove in relation to his queen, sometimes questioning at other times expanding on her judgements, decisions and ideas, but always out of concern for her well-being. While HB dotes like a love-struck devoted spouse, constantly cooing or rather “turring” in a deep vibrating sweet but mournful purr of affection, she responds with loving devotion to her dear “Stuts”. Their solid and unwavering union in a flame of love is best captured by some stanzas in William Shakespeare’s 1601 poem, “The Phoenix and the Turtle”.

“Here the anthem doth commence:

Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
So they loved, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
'Twixt the turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.
So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phoenix' sight;
Either was the other's mine.
Property was thus appalled,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded."
The poem concludes:
"Leaving no posterity:
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
Truth may seem, but cannot be:
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair
For these dead birds sigh a prayer."

In their married chastity, in spite of his philandering, their children were their ideas that he, the turtle, expounded orally and at length and she, the phoenix, wrote about at equal length. HA`s PhD had been on Saint Augustine`s theory of love. Her conception and effort had been to realize perfect love in the union of persons in the Trinity in the medieval Catholic literary traditions of mystical union, spiritual friendship and spiritual marriage.  For Blücher, his Phoenix provided the entire world of intellectual pleasure and Arendt`s judgements shone as “Clear as a naked Vestal, / Closed in an orb of Crystal.”

But the Phoenix side of the two–in-one pair was also a sacrificial lamb akin to Jesus as the innocent Savior persecuted and sacrificed for those who were truly guilty. Jesus says to his disciples, “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Hannah Arendt is the wise serpent; Heinrich Blücher is the innocent dove. But he wears the tell-tale black and white striped patch on his neck that forever marks those who think only in simplistic dichotomous categories. While Blücher flew off to wander in the wilderness of Bard College to escape the windy storms and tempests of public issues (Psalm 55), his Phoenix flew into the eye of the storm.

But their ideas had merged. "Either was the other's mine." Margarethe Von Trotta captures that duality in unity in the film even though Alex Milberg who portrays Heinrich Blücher is tall in contrastto the squat 5' 4" barrel-chested historical figure who chain-smoked camel cigarettes and enchanted his students at great length in a heavy German accent at Bard College. While the film would lead you to believe that Hannah Arendt developed her idea of the banality of evil from observing Adolph Eichmann, it is quite apparent that she pays no attention to his pursed lips, twitches and grimaces picked up and replayed in the black and white excerpts from the film of the actual trial, but only sucks up his words as if they were truly revelations of his thinking while declaring him, though not stupid, a man incapable of thought. 

In modern bureaucratic societies, human evil originates from a failure to think. Arendt accepted Eichmann’s claims that he had “never acted from base motives” and “never had any inclination to kill anybody … never hated Jews.” “Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth.” He was not a villain propelled by evil but a law-abiding citizen conscientiously obeying the law and doing his duty “`with excellence recognized by his superiors.” Though his crimes were genuine and extraordinary, Eichmann was not; he was an ordinary man.

Determined to portray Eichmann as an ordinary man and neither demonic nor a monster, nicht einmal unheimlich, she came to the opposite position, that he demonstrated an authentic inability to think. He did not act out of conviction nor with pronounced intentions. He was eigentich dumm. According to Arendt, Eichmann was not a Nazi. Arendt claimed that Eichmann was totally unaware of Hitler`s program but was simply passively swept into membership in the party. He was essentially a modest man with no personal hatred for Jews. Theseextreme empirical statements, refuted both by historical evidence and even the trial proceedings, are largely omitted from the film.The abstraction of the idea of Eichmann as a man incapable of thinking is the focus of the film rather than the actual historical Eichmann. 
Ironically, we do not hear any thought in process, only strongly held opinions. We see Bukova lying on her divan presumably reflecting as she smokes. We see her standing and looking inwardly as a visual representation of thinking. But unlike the film A Beautiful Mind, we actually never get a glimpse of real thinking. That is, perhaps, because Trotta buys into Hannah Arendt`s conception of thinkingas the deviant thought set off against simplifications, clichés and conventions as the only antidote to conformist non-thought of a bureaucratic society, conformity that allows us to carry out the will of higher authorities without reflection. 
For Arendt, thinking and thinking alone as critical non-conformity allows us to retain and maintain human dignity and resist servility. The fact that Arendt was empirically incorrect, that those who resisted the Nazi machinations, that those who engaged in acts of sacrifice to save others, were very infrequently thinkers and most often people with a stronger institutionalized set of values that made them act otherwise and according to what they considered ordinary norms, is ignored in the film. Only the thesis that evil arises from mechanical obedience by people who fail to think critically, reflectively and against the grain is suggested, but not by our witnessing such an event, but because we are told that this is the case. And because Arendt and Blücher are presented as cases in point, though what we actually witness is a stubborn unwillingness to consider other positions and weigh them fairly. Instead strong opinion against the current is seen as the sole representation of authentic thought with no evidence that non-conformist thought is the precondition of dissident action against organized evil.  
In the clearest failure of the film, the flashbacks to her love affair with Martin Heidegger (played by Klaus Pohl) and her re-union with Heidegger after the war when he never answers the question she poses to him why he became a Nazi, but instead mouths the romantic cliché that thinking is a “lonely business” and such real pretentious philosophical banalities that “we think because we are thinking beings” when, in reality, thinking is neither a lonely enterprise nor an activity exclusively reserved for humans and incumbent on humans to express their humanity. Thinking is a communal task of give and take, empirical testing and assessing consistency and coherence. Given that von Trotta buys into the Heideggerian conceit, thinking becomes identified with puffing endlessly on cigarettes and blowing smoke, with silent intensity and staring inwardly. We are not propelled into thinking with her but thrown into the illusion of thought. We are not forced to confront our own rigid beliefs but to accept hers as the only authentic ones in contrast to the dogmas and sentiments of those around her even though, ironically, her thoughts are just expressed as opinions and never as conclusions to the evidence before her or the results of arguments in which she was engaged. We only get the bottom line and the illusion of a process. Thinking is portrayed as arrogant assertion in the face of opposition. In this view, those who profess to believe in aliens visiting earth, as long as they accompany such expressions of belief with staring emptily, lying on a bed and blowing smoke, will be granted the status of great thinkers.
The conception of Eichmann as a man incapable of thought is translated into the idea of the "banality of evil". It is not clear whether the idea came from Carl Jaspers, her mentor and old friend, who for some inexplicable reason is not in the film, or whether her husband planted the idea in her head. Carl Jaspers first raised the idea of the banality of evil before Eichmann was even captured. As he wrote in a letter to her at then end of 1960, "we have to see these things (the murders by the Nazis) in their total banality (Banalitat), in their prosaic triviality, because that's what truly characterizes them." Arendt, in turn, suggested to Jaspers that her husband had characterized the type of evil perpetrated by the Nazis as a superficial phenomenon and that he had inspired her to adopt that as the sub-title of her Eichmann book. (Young-Bruehl, 1982, 330) But just as Hannah Arendt did, Margarethe Von Trotta ignores any references to the actual historical record.
Hannah Arendt had dedicated her book The Origins of Totalitarianism to her husband, often expressing the opinion that it was to him she owed a huge debt, not merely for his support but for his ideas. "The banality of evil" was a very enchanting but a terrible idea, but you would never know it from the film where the enemies who assault her, the New York intellectuals (Lionel Abel in his review in the Partisan Review and Norman Podhoretz in "Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: A study in the Perversity of Brilliance," 1963 in Commentary) in a presumable re-enactment of the famous meeting sponsored by the magazine Dissent at the Hotel Diplomat are turned into blithering idiots mouthing clichés. (See also Gertrude Ezorsky’s “Hannah Arendt Against the Facts,” in the Fall 1963 issue of New Politics and the correspondence between Lionel Abel and Tony Judt in The New York Review of Books.) Many of her academic colleagues turn against her, not because they find the concept as empty as its literal meaning, but are portrayed as stiff-necked dogmatic rednecks that make Adolph Eichmann look like the epitome of flexibility and litheness as they simply respond to the negative vituperation of the organized Jewish community.  (For an historical account and explication of that reaction, see Peter Novick (2000) The Holocaust in American Life.) Even her long term oldest friends and fellow "yekkes", Hans Jonas in New York (played with great heart and craft by Ulrich Noethen) and Kurt Blumenfeld (played with even greater sympathy by Michael Degen), finally literally turn their backs on her as she is accused of being a self-hating Jew. For the biopic, Hannah Arendt, is a portrait of betrayal, not Eichmann`s and the Nazi`s, but of the betrayal of Hannah Arendt by those intolerant of original thought in their desire to protect Jewish sensibilities. In that sense, von Trotta follows totally into the footprints of her main protagonist.
In the penultimate powerful grand finale scene where Hannah Arendt defends her interpretation with passion, vigour and intellectual acuity, the mindblinded academic colleagues walk out and even Kurt Blumenfeld insists that this time she went too far, but the rapt students in the audience applaud with mesmerized entranced looks. I watched that scene and asked how could I have been one of those students fifty years ago? If I had been there, I would certainly have applauded with even more energy than they even demonstrated. After all, in 1962, I had visited the New School with a view of possibly studying with her as a PhD student only to learn that she was not available. I did not learn until later that she was on leave working on the Eichmann book. 

Why was I even more enchanted by the idea of the “banality of evil” than the idea of “radical evil” she had propounded in The Origins of Totalitarianism? In Religion within the Limits of Reason, Immanuel Kant had depicted radical evil as a “natural propensity”, based on imperatives that dictate maxims that run contrary to law. But Adolph Eichmann repeated and repeated the claim that he performed his deeds because he was obeying the law with no special animus towards the Jews whatsoever. In the last frames, we see Hannah Arendt muttering to herself that her critics were not only wrong, but failed to note her one intellectual error, the recognition that evil could not be radical but was just so ordinary and puerile. As Hannah Arendt had written to Gershon Scholem, “It is indeed my opinion that evil is never ‘radical’ that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the entire world precisely because it is spread like a fungus on the surface or, in the metaphor Blücher bequeathed to her, like a bacterium. It is ‘thought defying’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’. (Young-Breul, 1982, 369) In other words, not only was Eichmann’s actions banal, not only was the execution of the Shoah by all the Nazis banal, but evil itself was banal precisely because it was characterized by Arendt as being without thought.

To grasp what she means, go see Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing which portrays the militia leaders, the politicians, the military leaders, but primarily the ‘gangsters’ (translated by them as meaning free men) who perpetrated the genocide of one million ethnic Chinese identified with the communist opposition to the Sukarno dictatorship in Indonesia. These genocidaires make a film re-enacting their acts of murder as well as their fantasies of freedom and happiness all based on borrowed Hollywood images filtered through an Indonesian sensibility. Told from the perspective of the victimizers who willingly re-enact their ruthless crusade of torture and murder, the film is unique. These mass murderers engage in rhapsodic fantasies of colour and pleasure and sensuous richness on an immense but totally amateurish scale that stand in such contrast to the black and white horror of the murders in the Lodz ghetto or their own massacres of the ethnic Chinese. Like Schindler’s List, in which Ralph Fiennes plays the Nazi war criminal, Amon Goeth, with such intensity and villainy as he cold bloodily shoots Jews from his balcony overlooking the Lodz ghetto, this is not the evil of ogres of villainy nor the banality of evil as the mechanical workings of a thoughtless bureaucracy supposedly epitomized by Eichmann, but the escape from boredom of fantasists addicted to hedonist pleasures.

The theory that evil portrayed as an absence of self-reflection and thought characterizes not only these three versions of genocidal behaviour, but all genocidal actions and even all evil acts, is obscured in the film where the common interpretation is adopted that only the mechanical and bureaucratic production of death as epitomized ostensibly by Eichmann is characterized as banal, an understandable confusion given Hannah Arendt’s own conflicting writing on the subject.

This interpretation is reinforced by Adolph Eichmann’s effort to portray himself in his trial, at least those parts of the trial that Hannah Arendt actually sat through. He was just a part of a bureaucratic system in which he followed orders. In 1963, Jacob Robinson prepared a six-page summary for his journal, Facts for B’nai Brith documenting Hannah Arendt’s errors and omissions. Later, as Deborah Lipstadt documented in The Eichmann Trial with much greater thoroughness and scholarship, Arendt missed those parts of the trial where Eichmann bared his fangs, revealed his deep-seated anti-Semitism and the tremendous initiatives he took in ensuring that Jews were dispatched to their death with as much efficiency as he could muster. Historical scholarship has established beyond a doubt that Adolph Eichmann was a vicious anti-Semite and a relentless and enthusiastic advocate of Jewish extermination who expressed the opinion in Argentina that his only regret was that he failed to kill even more Jews. But, of course, for Hannah Arendt, in the spirit of her mentor, Martin Heidegger, this is not by definition “thought”. Thought is not hypothetical and instrumental, but categorical and concerned only with itself. Thought is defined as intellectual masturbation without any need to have intercourse with the world to test its consistency and empirical grounds.

Facts! Who needs facts? Once Hannah Arendt conceived an idea, that was the fact. She might assert at one point her most controversial claim that the cooperation of the Jewish Councils with the Nazis in the bureaucratic organization of the death squads that took place with very few exceptions was the worst sin of the Holocaust or, in one extreme interpretation of the sentences from Arendt, even of Jewish history, or later that this was the action of a minority without pausing to note the contradiction, but when challenged whether by her critics or by William Shawn himself (Nicholas Woodeson) when he sat in awe of Hannah Arendt and challenged the verity of such an assertion, he was summarily put in his place for this was not an interpretation but a fact. Why? Because she asserted it!

The New Yorker bits offer the one humorous relief in the film when the editors are considering Hannah Arendt’s offer to cover the trial. William Shawn’s assistant, Francis, (Megan Gay) is unimpressed by the offer – “Philosophers don’t make deadlines,” she quips – but the young intern in the office, who turns out was Jonathan Schell, pipes up in youthful intellectual awe, “But she wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism“. The movie could have used a bit more comic relief.

For Hannah Arendt, the two great evils of the modern age were racism (and its kissing cousin, nationalism) and bureaucracy. As she wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Two new devices for political organization and rule over foreign peoples were discovered during the first decades of imperialism. One was race as a principle of the body politic, and the other bureaucracy as a principle of foreign domination. Without race as a substitute for the nation, the scramble for Africa and the investment fever might well have remained the purposeless ‘dance of death and trade’ (Joseph Conrad) of all gold rushes. Without bureaucracy as a substitute for government, the British possession of India might well have been left to the recklessness of the ‘breakers of law in India’ (Burke) without changing the political climate of an entire era.” Arendt went on to charge the pairing of racism with bureaucracy as responsible for the genocide of the Hottentots and Leopold II of Belgium’s responsibility for the crime against humanity in the Congo.

The “fact” that neither Leopold II’s international benevolent committee for the propagation of civilization among the people’s of Central Africa (the Association Internationale Africaine (AIA) or the African International Association) that so informed George Orwell’s understanding of doublespeak, and that Leopold quickly transformed into his personal exploitive development company as he was named by the 1884 Conference of Berlin as the Roi-Souverain of the newly formed Congo Free State or État Indépendant du Congo allowed Leopold to rule by decree (such as making all unregistered private property or vacant land as his personal domain or introducing the Force Publique to enforce “order” ostensibly to stifle the Arab trade in slaves but constituting a private mercenary militia to recruit and control corvée laborers), Congolese workers were now reduced to serfs, an event captured so creatively in Joseph Conrad’s 1902 classic Heart of Darkness. Sir Robert Casement in his 1900 report to the British Foreign Office did not mince words. The exploitation and suffering and mass killing of the Congolese was not the result of an Indian-like bureaucracy or thoughtless behaviour, but the deliberate product of greed reinforced by modern arms and a mercenary military regime. In his famous words, “The root of the evil [in the Congo] lies in the fact that the government of the Congo is above all a commercial trust, that everything else is orientated towards commercial gain.”

Not bureaucracy but greed uninhibited by the rule of law lay at the root of that exploitation, murder, death by disease and starvation that devastated the Congo. But Hannah Arendt was a political “thinker” in which thoughts and a grand idée fixée rather than a petite idée became incontrovertible facts rather than interpretations immune to refutation by picayune details or actual empirical data. (See Adam Hochschild (1998) King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.) Congo rule, in empirical fact, was not based on a bureaucratic hierarchical organization of trained professionals and specialized officials governed by administrative rules and the control of information whether efficient or byzantine. In empirical fact, Leopold’s organization never consisted of more than 200 officials. Arendt had bought into Blücher’s Marxist conviction that the bureaucracy is the state which has made itself into civil society.

The movie begins with a brief re-enactment of the capture of Adolph Eichmann on a rural road in Argentina as the Mossad agents pile Eichmann into the back of a large truck leaving only the lit flashlight he was using lying in the dirt. For a more or less accurate picture of the capture, a viewer could watch the documentary that mixes interviews and historical footage with re-enactments in the 2010 documentary, Eichmann's End: Love, Betrayal and Death. The film, Hannah Arendt, is a biopic that leaves out interviews in favour of re-enactments or even imagined scenes that never took place. One would never know from the latter film, but could learn from the former, that Adolph Eichmann belonged to a group of unrepentant fanatic antisemitic Nazis who dreamed of vindication. Nor would one learn of the close collaboration between a Frankfurt prosecutor and the Israel's Mossad, as well as the chance flirtation between one of Eichmann's son and Silvia Hermann, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, enabled that capture. 
The false note also ends the film when in a wholly imagined scene, Israeli Mossad agents accost Hannah Arendt on an American country road and demand that she abandon her plans to publish her book on Eichmann because such a book would hurt the victims of the Nazi Holocaust a second time. Arendt rejects the plea and walks off, leaving totally unexplained why a team of Mossad agents would be needed to deliver such a plea and jump out of a car to do so except to portray the snake`s tail in the serpent`s own mouth to bring the end back to the beginning of the movie in a repetitious “walking my lonely road” scene. Except in Argentina, the men overpower Eichmann with physical force and violence. In America, Arendt overpowers the Mossad agents with the power of words and the impression of an argument. Unlike Eichmann, Arendt is not an ordinary unthinking being but an extraordinary female intellectual beneath whom men must grovel.  Here, she stands up to the Mossad agents and tells them off; they slink away, grumbling impotent before the truth as Arendt quips that Israel must now be very rich since it could afford to send four men to deter her will to publish the book. The arc is completed but with a clear even if unintended anti-Semitic stench. 
The movie is an aesthetic circle and a tautological expression of a point of view. When Hannah Arendt was a Zionist in the thirties and worked for a German Zionist organization, she became close friends of Siegried Moses. As a member of the government at the time of the Eichmann trial, he did contact Hannah Arendt and even met her in Switzerland to try to convince her not to go ahead with the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem as a book. But this scene went far beyond poetic license in recapitulating that meeting. It is a calumny that reinforces this brilliant film as philosophic porn and completely unjust, unfair, lacking in understanding and critical comprehension of the core intellectual issues.
But this film is not about Eichmann's betrayal and execution but about the loyalty of HA's close entourage including her husband and Mary McCarthy (played with extraordinary conviction by Janet McTeer) as an exemplification of von Trotta`s theme of sisterhood and Hannah Arendt`s intense sociability and loyalty to friends superimposed by a fusion of European superior worldliness  - you don`t have to marry all your lovers Arendt tells McCarthy. McCarthy and Arendt banter back and forth, not about ideas, but about husbands, lovers and infidelities. Though Alfred Kazan, Hans Morgenthau, Irving Howe, Robert Lowell, Bruno Bettleheim and Raul Hilberg (then the foremost scholar on the Holocaust who first offered the critical but more judicious and scholarly critical rather than moralistic and judgemental comments on the role of the Jewish Councils) stuck by and even defended her, I was unable to spot them in the film though I am sure some of them were there. But movies demand such economies and shorthand representations. The film has to be recognized as creatively bringing Hannah Arendt`s thinking and writing back into the mainstream and making it accessible, but only by following in the footsteps of her brilliant predecessor, Leni Riefenstahl, and producing a brilliant piece of hagiography. Margarethe von Trotta was the first woman since Riefenstahl to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Riefenstahl won for her 1938 film, Olympia.
A subsidiary theme inadequately examined is Arendt`s view of the role of the Jewish Councils in cooperating with the Nazis although this, according to the film, was the central issue that alienated Arendt from the Jewish community, especially the charge made without any empirical evidence that more Jews would have been saved had the Jewish leadership refused to offer any cooperation. “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” For a far more insightful cinematic representation into that aspect of the issue, see Claude Lanzmann`s new film The Last of the Unjust as Lanzmann interviews Benjamin Murmelstein in 1975 when he was beginning his project on Shoah. Lanzmann headed a Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto and was the only Jewish leader in such a position to survive the genocide. Ironically, he was also the only Jewish leader who sat next to and worked with Adolph Eichmann and who could have been used to test her hypothesis. Lanzmann reveals that characterizing these leaders as collaborators, whatever their failings, was a big lie. Unlike Eichmann who is portrayed by Arendt as being caught up in the wind of the Nazi process passively, Arendt portrayed these leaders as actively selling out their fellow Jews when they wanted to protect Jews and totally opposed the Nazi ideology. Unlike Eichmann, they were truly powerless to resist. But, unlike Arendt herself even after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Murmelstein was treated as a real pariah by the Jewish community because Hannah Arendt merely reflected the conventional but unarticulated and erroneous conviction of the Jewish community, especially the Yekke Jewish community, that these leaders had betrayed the Jewish people. 

Living in her grand apartment on Riverside Drive in Morningside Heights in Manhattan well south of the Washington Heights community where the New York Yekkes congregated, Arendt nevertheless remained a cultural member of the Yekke community-in-exile who spoke German at home and remained faithful to German culture as the core of inherited civilization and the exemplification of intellectual virtue. Yekke is a Yiddish expression itself possibly derived from the Rheinish term for a mad fool, an intellectual court jester. (See Stephen M. Lowenstein (1989) Frankfurt on the Hudson: The German Jewish Community of Washington Heights, 1933-1962, its Structure and Culture; the book ends with the period in which Hannah Arendt was writing her book.) Hannah Arendt was a Yekke to her core and arrogantly looked down upon the eastern Jews who she alleged exemplified servility in the face of the Nazi onslaught, forgetting that as a German Jew she was only saved because she could flee in 1933 and they could not in 1941, that she was saved by the efforts of those such as Albert Hirschman, Protestant activist bystanders and the Jewish community.

However, Hannah Arendt, while extolling the virtues of intellectual independence, turned her back on another Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, mending the world and actually serving and working for the marginalized and oppressed as she did in the thirties. As her friend, Gershom Scholem, who found her book on Eichmann “heartless” and “malicious”, wrote: “In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as Ahabath Israel, or Love for the Jewish people. In you, dear Hannah, as in so many intellectuals who came from the German left, I find no trace of this.”

Von Trotta captures Arendt`s rebuttal to Scholem in her arguments with Jonas and Blumenthal when she expresses the feeling that she only feels for individuals and friends not for a people. Love for any collectivity is repudiated, even when that love leads to saving the lives of individuals who are strangers. The dictum to love the stranger as oneself is a foreign and alien concept to her even though it lay behind the effort to save her life in France and bring her to America. 
A glance in passing is also paid in the film to her perhaps most controversial claim about the purpose of trials in dealing with crimes against humanity and the nature of justice. Reference is made to her view (and that of Blücher) that criminal trials have to focus on the acts of individuals not on putting history on trial. Blücher states: "You can't put history on trial. You can only try one man." Justice is about the actions of singular individuals and hints are made, but it is not expanded upon, of her actual loathing for the Israeli prosecutor, Gideon Hausner. Arendt in her book discusses at length her contention that the trial should not have been used to bring to public consciousness the horrors of the Holocaust, thereby converting a trial about the crimes of one individual into a show trial. The fact that the trial achieved that purpose, the fact that this biopic does the same for her own ideas, is simply left unexamined. For after all, thinking is not about the examined life but about the intellectually expressed life. What we do get is Hannah Arendt wandering around Jerusalem dismayed and bewildered by witnesses fainting and by Israelis frozen listening to their radios as they follow the trial proceedings. For von Trotta, Arendt will be accused of arrogance and emotional indifference, but in the film this stupefaction is portrayed as an act of intellectual courage by a woman unwilling to be carried away by the emotion of the moment.

One of my favourite films of all times is Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, even though the portrait of Oskar Schindler bears only a glancing overlap with the real historical figure whereas the Hannah Arendt of Von Trotta`s film bears a close resemblance to the real historical figure. Oskar Schindler, however, was not a Nazi business opportunist who underwent an epiphany as he witnessed the horrific clearing of the Lodz ghetto portrayed with such immaculate realism to become the saviour of 1400 or so Jews. His two best friends as a boy were the sons of the rabbi who lived next door. He was a spy for the Abswehr, the centre of anti-Nazi activity in the German admiralty. He was also a money runner for the Zionists who helped fund his business investments. He was always a philo-Semite. But you will learn none of this from watching the film which follows the tried and true format of Hollywood holocaust films that follow a Christian trope of villainy, revelation and redemption. Nevertheless, the film, in spite of its lack of reverence for anything but visual truth, offers a powerful portrayal of the Holocaust even if a very inaccurate portrait of a bystander who saved Jews.

This von Trotta film does the reverse, presenting a reasonably accurate portrayal of an individual as she appears (rather than as she thinks) while buying into her distortions and misconceptions about another individual, Adolph Eichmann, and her misunderstandings of the Holocaust. Both films have Hollywood endings, the survivors in Schindler’s List coming over the hill to arrive in the land of Israel. Hannah Arendt ends with Arendt’s triumphal speech at the New School defending her interpretation as her academic and perhaps too-Jewish looking enemies largely scurry away like intellectual cowards as her beautiful Aryan-appearing students applaud rapturously. Of course, von Trotta offered a similar Hollywood trope in her 2003 film, Rosenstrasse, where women save men from their intellectual folly. After all, the stuff of movies is made up of fantasies and not history and that is why, in the tension between aesthetics and truth, there is no recognition of how truth is betrayed in such films. In this failing, there is an even greater failure, the failure to connect the love of fantasy with the commission of crimes against humanity. 

Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind is a very different film, a biopic about a thinker, John Nash (played wonderfully by Russell Crowe), a Nobel Laureate and professor at Princeton renowned for his contributions to chaos theory and its application to cryptography and economics. It follows a standard trope of biopics in portraying creative brilliance as the protagonist wrestles with his inner demons, this time, not alcoholism or drugs but paranoid schizophrenia and the delusional episodes it often brought on. Like Schindler’s List, the movie was highly popular and won numerous academy awards – best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress as well as nominations for others. Further, Ron Howard’s movie was unique in actually providing an insight into the life of the mind of a creative mathematical genius even as it omitted key aspects of Nash’s personal life, especially his other family and his illegitimate son who are ignored in the film. Like Schindler’s List, whose epiphany takes place at the sight of the little girl in red in the midst of the clearing of the ghetto, an imaginary little girl, Marcee, who “never gets old”, provides the turning point for Nash to master and control his own delusions without the assistance of medication, a regimen that will help him live as normal a life as possible as he both lives with his delusions and imaginary foes to win the Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to game theory. Like Schindler, this is a movie about a hero.

In Hannah Arendt as presented by von Trotta we are presented with an idea as if it emerges as an epiphany from watching the supposed ordinariness of Adolph Eichmann when in fact the idea was already a preconception she already possessed and projected onto Eichmann. If Arendt and Blücher railed against the absolutist and essentialist tendencies in Western thought in which Hegel was purportedly its modern arch-enemy who inspired Stalin via Marx, there is no recognition either of the scholarly distortion of this interpretation just as there is no recognition that the ardent defence of an original idea and insight defended with passion as the most important expression of life was both at the core of the tradition they attacked without recognizing it and also a real betrayal of thinking where empirical falsification, attention to detail and contradictions are essential.

Here is how Blücher is portrayed in David Laskin’s book, Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals: “Blücher was every inch the self-made man, the man of the people, the outsider who thumbed his nose at received opinions as he beat a path to a higher, sturdier, strikingly original truth of his own manufacture. In the words of Alfred Kazin, the close friend of both Hannah and her husband, Blücher, the fantastic talker with a hypnotic style, is described in his diary as an unstoppable mental creature (who) orates without stopping in his living room on any `great thinker` who has aroused his attention–from Heraclitus to Joachim of Floris… shouting philosophy at you in the sweetest kind of way. . . . Heinrich is given to fantasy and exaggeration, noble lies about his military knowledge.” Like Arendt, he was indifferent to the virtues of accuracy in scholarship. (See their letters in Within Four Walls.) In a film about thought as critical reflection, the style of the film is of unreflective naturalism captured best by beautiful period twin sweater sets that Arendt wears while the ideas are broadcast like titles on a marquee.

It is a wonderful movie that brilliantly captures an aspect of Hannah Arendt, but if that was who she was, then I am even more puzzled by my youthful enchantment with her intellect. Fortunately for me, any simple rereading of her works proves she was much more intellectually interesting even if her take on Eichmann was both foolish and wrong and even if her idea on the banality of evil left only a residue of truth that most genocidal actual murders are carried out by ordinary people and not by mad demons. On the sub-theme of the tension between Hannah Arendt and the Jewish community, I await Michael Marrus forthcoming book on the lessons from history, particularly the lessons from the Holocaust. Was Peter Novick correct that Americans after first refusing to come face-to-face with the Holocaust because of the Cold War and a refusal to identify with victims, only came to accept the Holocaust in the aftermath of the Eichmann trial to organize support for Israel as the Holocaust became the emblem of historical Jewish suffering in the competition for victimhood as the mode by which Jews bought into Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment not to give Hitler a posthumous victory? Are Jews pariahs because they are Jews (and Zionists) or because, as Hannah Arendt claimed, they happen to be intellectuals? Or is being a pariah – ideological, national or intellectual – just their contemporary shtick? Does the Holocaust have any lessons to teach us?

The only certitude that I have is that the certainties that Margarethe von Trotta projects onto the screen and Hannah Arendt espoused on the subject were incorrect.