Foxtrot and Contingency

Let me be perfectly clear. Samuel Maoz’ film Foxtrot, that won eight Ophirs in Israel, the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize in Venice and was a runner-up to the shortlisted nominations for the Academy Award for the best foreign film, is superb. I, however, do not recommend that you see it. The film is just too heart wrenching, just too painful to watch. When physical self-harm is used to inflict pain on oneself in order to distract from the far more ominous and inescapable emotional pain, then you get some idea of the depth and breadth of the pain aimed at the audience. We cannot feel the self-inflicted physical pain. Extraordinarily, that is a relief. For we cannot escape feeling the emotional pain.

And there were so many times I wanted to escape, to just get up and leave the theatre. Admittedly, the pain for me might have been doubled because I watched the film yesterday with my youngest son and the film is about the loss of a son. Admittedly, that pain might have been doubled again because of a trauma of death that my son went through that was not that dissimilar to the one in the movie. Nevertheless, when I awoke this morning after going to bed early because I had been so emotionally rung out, I still felt like a dishrag that had been wrung dry. I slept seven hours in total instead of my usual 4-5 hours.

I will tell you the opening of the first 60 seconds of the film, but no more. After a seemingly unrelated frame of a truck driving down a lonely and dusty road, an Israeli soldier appears at the door of an upper middle-class family in Tel Aviv. Daphna Feldmann (Sarah Adler), the mother of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray), faints. Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) is stunned into silence. This is all in the first minute. Little is said. Little needs to be said. And the emotional impact simply grows from there. Reflecting and thinking about the film, rather than reliving it, is itself an escape.

What started as a dance to the syncopated ragtime music of composers and performers like Scott Joplin, the foxtrot was translated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers into a dance with elegance and fluidity in a 4/4 time signature rhythm. The foxtrot dance alternates between two rhythms – slow-slow-quick-quick and slow-quick-quick. The quick-quicks are reduced to punctuation marks in the movie.

Instead of a free-flowing rhythm, the foxtrot in the film is reduced to a stilted and rigid exercise of squares in which the dancer returns to the original point. According to Maoz, “We thus enter the Foxtrot dance of traumatic circle: no matter what you do, you always end up where you began.” However, instead of going around in circles, the movie actually travels in rigid and repetitive squares. And when illustrated in the film, instead of a close dance, the individual performer moves in isolation. Right, back, left, return. Yamina, sig, smola, shub. The movie moves in a straight line, yashar, yashar, only between the corner points of the square, each time after a radical ninety degree turn.

The term “foxtrot,” reduced to very selective essentials, is ironic. There is never a trot. And the movement is so sluggish as to be paralyzing. As we watch each parent separately from a bird’s eye view in the claustrophobic intimacy of a washroom in the beginning act, we suffer from vertigo, but not from movement, but from lives that literally have come to a dead stop even as their bodies painfully curl up in foetal positions.

The film has four acts, though the director insists that there are three. “The three-act structure enabled me to offer an emotional journey for my viewers: the first act should shock them, the second should hypnotize, and the third should be moving. Each sequence reflects, by using various cinematic tools, the character that stands in its center. The first act, featuring Michael, is sharp and concise—just like him. It consists of detached compositions. The third act is loose and warm, just like Dafna. It floats a few inches above the ground. The second act takes place in a surrealist outpost, occupied by four soldiers and an occasional wandering camel…This act is uniquely non-verbal (in) its wry sense of humor and surrealism.”

It is not as if there is no relief from the emotional pain of Act One. There is. The relief even includes some gentle humour in the second act as Maoz describes it. But the main relief in the film in that second act is boredom, the alternative enemy of human happiness to pain. We choose to be bored, even in the most boring context, precisely because we blame the boredom on externalities. We do not choose emotional pain. Further, boredom is painful in a very different way than emotional pain. For boredom messes with our heads, not our hearts. Boredom results from being disengaged from another (in a Freudian slip, I first typed “from amother”); emotional pain is a product of intimate engagement. We become bored when we are cut off from both internal and external stimuli. We experience the greatest emotional pain when internal and external stimuli combine to whack us in the solar plexus. With emotional pain, there is no one to blame. When people are bored, they always blame their surroundings rather than taking responsibility for their own circular obsession with being bored.

For the German 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, “the two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom.” Life is an oscillation between pain and boredom, between torment and repetitive actions without meaning, such as Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill daily only to see it roll down again just before he reaches the summit. Which is the worst hell? In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, to the degree we escape one, to that degree we are thrust into the arms of another.

However, Schopenhauer inverted the experience of each. Boredom is largely a product of external and objective conditions, but that eminent philosopher believed that boredom comes from the inside. Emotional pain is a product of the internal and subjective, but Schopenhauer attended only to physical pain and attributed it to be a product of poverty and the absence of external conditions that would have allowed us to thrive and prosper instead of feeling pain. The movie tells an opposite story to that of Schopenhauer, of inner emotional pain and external boredom.

But the main philosophical concept underlying the powerful impact of the film is contingency. Contingency has two very opposite meanings. It refers to what may happen. The movie is an exercise in imaginative possibility rather than a depiction of reality. The controversial scene which aroused the ire of Israeli politicians is not a depiction of how the IDF behaves, even though this is what some viewers and commentators thought, but an extension of circumstances to make what is possible plausible. As Maoz said in an interview, “This is not a film about the occupation or the Palestinians. It is a film about Israeli society. Second, a work of art should not aspire to imitate and recreate reality; it should interpret, illuminate, or unravel its hidden aspects. And this is exactly what Foxtrot is trying to achieve.”

The second very different meaning of contingency refers to something liable to happen rather than simply a mere logical possibility. If we take the film to be about contingency as a likely existential liability rather than a remote logical possibility, then from my knowledge of the ethics governing the Israeli army, what is depicted may be a logical possibility, but is also a calumny in portraying the IDF. As Maoz himself said, “I was doing something that seemed right and logical. I wanted to deal with the gap between the things we control and those that are beyond them.” He was not depicting an existential reality.

The second act is a stylized surreal portrayal, a depiction that attracted the wrath of some leftist Israeli politicians for that stylistic quality and the wrath of right wingers because of the content. In spite of the detailed and heightened reality of the first and third acts, the power of the film comes, not from its existential portrayal of reality in the first and third acts, but from the logical sense of inevitability.

For Immanuel Kant, teleology, the end purpose and meaning of everything, is regulative; it is not a depiction of actuality. It serves as a guide, not as a depiction. Hegel argued that teleology served as such a guide only because of an instinct built into reason itself to bring everything together into an actual whole that appeared to constitute reality. That propensity would end up leading people to believe that they understood the absolute truth of the present when a belief in the absolute was precisely what had to be disaggregated in each age. The great philosophic irony is that most commentators took Hegel to be an advocate for the absolute and not someone who described its all-embracing and claustrophobic but inevitable propensity to characterize life that way.

Is the film about self-knowledge, the whole humanistic effort since the Enlightenment and even the Socratic foundations of philosophy? Or is the film a critique of the militarism that infects Israeli society? Is it a fearless autopsy on human emotions in general and Israelis in particular much more than a social critique? Certainly, Maoz’s first film, Lebanon, belonged to the latter category. “Lebanon, was based on my experience as a 20-year-old gunner in one of the first Israeli tanks to enter Lebanon in the 1982 Lebanon War. That film helped me to try and understand what it means to kill other human beings, as I did during my military service at the IDF. I had no other choice, and yet the notion of taking lives is an excruciating burden I am forced to live with. Foxtrot was born from a different place. After Lebanon was released in 2009, I was overwhelmed by the stories other Israelis with PTSD have told me. I realized I was not alone. There are endless variations of my story and the kind of pain and guilt it germinates.”

Maoz actually offers the same answer in the film. The son of the parents, Jonathan, is a sketch artist. The last drawing he made hangs on their wall. Each parent offers an opposite Freudian interpretation of the drawing. Neither takes it to be about reality. Is the irony that they presume a deep psychological meaning – however opposite for each – when there is none, or is the irony that most members of the audience will believe the parents missed the point – that this was an actual portrayal of a horrific reality?  The audience is then invited to laugh at the parents rather than examine why they do this instead and what such an interpretation says about themselves. Why do commentators and members of the audience tend to interpret the sketch to be about the son’s effort to externalize his trauma rather than a surrealist element in the movie intended to provoke self-examination? Is the weakness of the film, and its limited box office appeal, a result of this ambiguity, when there is one intended outcome but the opposite actual one?

I do not take the film to be primarily a critique of the IDF and the extent to which it does or even could engage in literal corrupt cover-ups that infects and makes complicit the lives of individual soldiers in the IDF. I do not interpret the film, as the Israeli Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, did, as offering a “searing, for her, unjustified, critique of Israeli militarized culture.” As Maoz declared, “If you choose to see this narrow picture (that of Regev), it will be your choice. But I will do anything to force you to see the bigger picture.” Does the film attempt to provide an understanding of military reality or is it primarily an exposure of inner psychological reality? The overwhelming focus of the film on the parents and their internal emotional pain suggests that the latter is the case, that the film is primarily about self-understanding and is not a critique of society, however depressing the external narrative concerning the perpetual nature of the external conflict.

Maoz said, “I needed to find a dance that you can do in many versions, but you will always end at the same starting point. This is the dance of our society. The leadership has to save us from the loop of the foxtrot dance, but they’re doing the opposite.” However, he also said that, given the Holocaust, “we couldn’t complain, we had to repress, and we became a second generation of traumatized victims.” Sometimes he seems to describe the film as a social critique, at other times as a socio-psychological inquiry into the Israeli and human soul. Is the terrible scene in the film’s second act and depicted in the drawing an ewar, death,ffort to describe political reality or is it a metaphor, as Maoz said, “a microcosm of our apathetic and anxious society”? “For me (Maoz), this was the climax of an unhealthy situation that gets more and more crooked. We prefer to bury the victims rather than asking ourselves penetrating questions.”

 

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Birds of a Feather

Yesterday, we went out to dinner with two friends. They had been out that day with a guide trekking through the jungle looking at the flora and fauna. I had been invited to go along, but I declined. In my terrible black humour, I said that I was allergic to getting too close to nature. That, of course, was not the real reason. After all, I had walked up, not once, but twice – not accurate, one of those times I walked down – through the jungle on the side of a mountain.

I think the real reason is that, whereas others see the beauty and bounty of nature, ever since I was educated by one of my sons about the environment, I see what is missing. In my walks through the jungle, I did not see a single bird. They did, but it was a flower, a bird of paradise. They showed me the picture they had taken. When I asked whether there were fewer birds here than when they first came to San Pancho, they indicated that the reverse was true. There seemed to them to be more.

I was sceptical. When I woke up this morning, I looked up on the internet to find whether the bird population in Nayarit, Mexico was declining or rising. I could not find an answer. There were too many sites advertising the wonders of bird watching in this area. The San Pancho Bird Observatory conducts tours for birders. However, the site also briefly mentioned another objective – to protect the population of birds, both in types and quantity. They needed protection. They needed sanctuaries. I suspect, like elsewhere, one can over a period witness the tragedy of the few and the thinning of nature. After all, I have not seen a single butterfly since I have been here and this is the area where butterflies from Canada winter.

It is not as if I had not seen many birds. You only have to walk along the beach to see egrets and ducks, herons, gulls and ibises – especially near the estuary at the south end of the long beach. But I do not have to walk along the beach to see birds. The prehistorical-looking chachalacas shriek and scream just as the sun rises every morning as they fly around playing follow the leader. Watching black hawks soar and rise on the updrafts without a flap of their wings is to truly watch grace in motion. I have also seen what look like turkey vultures and even one falcon. If I was a birdwatcher, I surely would be able to distinguish the various types of sparrows, orioles, warblers – I recognize them from their songs – finches and rushes, terns and wrens that perch on the edge of the swimming pool, taking a swig of water and resting before flying off.

I did recognize several of the birds. One was a Killdeer. I know that bird because I once reviewed a play by the Canadian poet, E.J. Pratt, called after that bird. It has two alternating white and black bands around its neck and a white patch above its very streamlined beak Another bird that returned to the edge of the pool several times was small and yellow with black and white almost striated wings and a very short and stubby beak. Another much larger bird had similar wings, but a red top and golden cheeks. I even once saw a green parrot – and one woodpecker, several times. It was red at the top and had a banded neck.

However, instead of taking great joy in the bounty of nature that is there, I mourn the genocide of birds and animals by the human species. And I believe I know the deep rather than immediate cause. It has to do partially with the university as an institution about which I have been writing.

From feedback that I have received, I clearly have not been clear enough. I will retrace my steps, depicting the university as a Sanctuary of Truth and then its transition to the Sanctuary of Method that I referred to in my last blog and then the transformation of that type of university into a Social Service Station. Finally, I will describe the type of university that is currently emerging, the university as a consumer’s supermarket.

The mediaeval university went into serious decline with the onset of modernity during the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In the final stages of its estimable evolution in that period, what had become a home for aristocrats to play and sew their wild oats was taken over by the court in its battle with the country to ensure that noblemen acquired modern technical skills in contrast to the general disdain of the landed aristocracy for higher learning. Ranks were distributed based on one’s educational achievement. However, what was being measured was not the acquisition of knowledge or critical skills, but the ethos and ability to conduct oneself according to the standards of the court. In contrast, the landed aristocracy, rooted in one form of pietism, defended their faith as a source of their countervailing values.

Though Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor-Roper differed in their explanations for the crisis that afflicted the seventeenth century and to some degree its characterization, both concurred that the seventeen-hundreds were years marked by unprecedented turmoil. There has been a general agreement that during that mini-ice age and a severe decline in population levels, societies were riven with shifts in the political order and the well-being of society. A central component was, in my mind, a crisis of faith and it pervaded the whole world in that early expression of globalization. The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought William of Orange into the possession of the British crown. The Thirty Years’ War, the revolts against the Spanish Crown from Holland to Naples, the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and of the Shogun in Japan – one can go on and on to document the crisis of the seventeenth century.

And Mexico played a central role as gold, but especially silver, from this area flooded the world economy bringing about significant inflation. In this fraught atmosphere, society was pulled apart. A powerful and centralizing bureaucracy under the crown fought a locally-focused and land-based aristocracy rooted in deep-seated religious beliefs. The university was caught up as an instrument and representative of the battle between what has been called Crown and Country. The University of Königsberg in East Prussia, founded in the middle of the sixteenth century, was no exception. One reader sent me a message about Mark Twain’s portrait of the University of Heidelberg where the children of aristocrats spent their time duelling and frittering away parental wealth as they sought degrees guaranteeing them a place in the new state bureaucracies. It was just a typical example of the malaise that overhung universities.

As this tension moved into the eighteenth century, great scholars began to appear in the interstices of these decrepit institutions, at least decrepit from the perspective of any dedication to the preservation, creation and transmission of knowledge through the education of students. Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in that city as a child of artisans (harness makers) rather than of the landed aristocracy. His family’s pietism celebrated religious emotion and the divine authority of the Lutheran Church. But Kant, in spite of his enormous regard for his parents, was influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France. He struggled and wrote, earned money as a tutor and lectured students for pay until he finally received an appointment at the University of Königsberg. Only then did he articulate his revolutionary philosophical principles in the 1780s that breached the divide between rationalism and empiricism, science and morality, the inner world of thought and the outer world of experience.

Humans achieved certainty because there were laws such as causation etched in our brains that were necessary conditions of any knowledge. In ethics, imperatives were also there as preconditions of any morality whatsoever. And beneath the whole edifice was the autonomous thinking self that gave us both our freedom to think and act. But, as we shall see in my next blog, no sooner had a new basis for certainty been forged as a substitute for faith than it all fell apart and the Sanctuary of Truth evolved into the Sanctuary of Method initially at the beginning of the nineteenth century at the University of Berlin.

However, I am getting ahead of myself. At the end of the eighteenth century, it was very widely believed that Kant had resurrected and saved the idea of final causes, of a teleology of reason that gave the world a purpose. But there was an inherent contradiction. As Kant opted for reason in place of emotional piety, as he chose the autonomy of thought over the dependency on grace, he tried to preserve a lofty place for his parents in the noumenal world of faith that lay beyond sensibility and reason as he inherited and imbibed their artisan attention to hard work, discipline and rigid order. He had linked the sentimental thinking of the Scottish philosophers – David Hume and Adam Smith – with Newtonian science and Leibnizian mathematics. But he did so by surrendering and submitting to the authority of the Crown and relegated the Country to a backwater of faith which he respected and put on a pedestal. Otherwise, country was ignored. His justification: faith was beyond reason and used reason to demarcate that sacred space and leave it alone.

So whence the corruption? Aristocrats may now have attended such a university to earn a status that allowed them to serve the state rather than to pursue and advance knowledge, but the core of the university, though only a core, had been resurrected as a place for the pursuit of truth. To make a long story very short, I will jump to the 1930s and 1940s when the Sanctuary of Method was leaving behind the Sanctuary of Truth as a respected and admired backwater, but no longer the centre for the advancement of knowledge. I jump to Oxford and Cambridge and the breeding of spies who betrayed rather than served the crown. I refer to the well-known story of Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, of Kim Philby and Donald Maclean.

They were all scions of the aristocracy, sometimes the lower aristocracy, but the aristocracy nonetheless. Born into privilege, they were children of the Country being trained in Cambridge to serve the Crown. They had been raised at Eton with a grand sense of entitlement and of hierarchy, perhaps even more rigid, though not as explicitly depicted as in Prussia. That made it even more powerful in being understood rather than articulated, thereby instilling a deeper sense of disappointment if one failed to grab the brass ring of status rather than of money.

But why through an adherence to communism and, in particular, Stalin’s Russia? Because communism did not represent for them any identity with the working class, but resentment and revenge on the aristocracy in which they did not achieve the highest honours and recognition to which they felt was their due. Brilliance, wit, an ability to mimic the foibles and follies of one’s class, were all prerequisites. But insufficient. And if one failed, one was left with a set of tools with possibly no real outlet.

John Maynard Keynes in his intellectual brilliance and as a member of the Apostles – not quite the highest order in the hierarchy – or E. M. Forster, who would write Passage to India, one of the greatest novels of English literature, may have both belonged to the secret fellowship of Apostles that revered cleverness and wit, idiosyncratic rituals and a special jargon, but their intelligence and creativity offered them a positive outlet for their class resentment. Guy Burgess and Walter Maclean, Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby all chose to become moles rather than attempt to soar as birds to the heights to which they believed they were destined.

They betrayed a decaying empire to serve a rising one, not the working class, but a fresh – and ruthless new imperial order. They belonged to the swamp of London in service to Moscow. Instead of free thought they chose a closed system so they could express themselves in actions untrammeled by the norms of their society. They were rebels with a cause, but the cause was driven by the psychology of resentment rather than any concern for the suffering and the deprived. Further, the crisis of both capitalism and liberalism as it faced the rise of fascism offered a ready excuse. They could ostensibly be high-minded even if they failed to achieve the highest status.

They had the perfect cover. They belonged, even as in their idiosyncratic beliefs and decadent behaviour merely served to reassure their acceptance as members in a privileged order. There were no real security clearances. They were all trusted as “good old boys”. They had been brought up to be irresponsible and they would prove that they had absorbed those values to the nth degree. Devoted to opulence rather than frugality, to cynicism rather than faith, to hypocrisy rather than a reverence for the truth, and to superficial display rather than deep thought, they had become members of a higher order than even the Apostles, an even more secret order.

As birds of a feather, one by one they went into exile together in that idyllic imaginary centre of a utopian higher order. The secret and exclusive order of M15 and M16 were merely waystations. Defensive snobbery and anxiety about slipping into the bourgeoisie combined to propel them to risk their own turf for a different hierarchy of privilege and crony network into which not one of them was really accepted as they lived out their lives in exile as ex-pats in Moscow.

Let me end by returning to the eighteenth century and the glory of the Sanctuary of Truth in a period when birds did not have to be protected by living in sanctuaries. Carl Linnaeus, the famous eighteenth century Swedish botanist and zoologist, was educated and ended up lecturing at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He was one of the greatest scientists of the century famed for his binomial nomenclature for naming organisms as he became the godfather of modern biology. He had already done for nature what Kant would accomplish for consciousness. But both were still rooted in an ahistorical conviction about both nature and the mind which was only set aside when the classifications and characterizations of both of these very original thinkers were reconfigured as part of a developmental and historically emergent system where classes and rules became convenient conventions for understanding, grasping and using the external world.

Instead of a fixed hierarchy of the social world, Linnaeus developed the concept of a nested hierarchy of kingdoms (later also phyla), classes, orders (later also families), genera, species and taxa (varieties in botany and subspecies in zoology). These were not hierarchies of power and coercion or of formal authority, but simply ways of comprehending the world. Instead of class being used to establish hierarchies, hierarchies were used to establish a method of classification. Similarities counted more than differences, observations counted rather than prejudices.

Further, as in Cambridge, Linnaeus had his Apostles at Uppsala, but they shared a kinship with the apostles who surrounded Jesus rather than those who gathered together in Cambridge. There were seventeen rather than twelve. Many of them sacrificed their lives as they went on dangerous expeditions around the world to gather specimens of plants, animals and minerals. There would have been no Darwin without an earlier Linnaeus and the methods he instilled in his charges for preserving and classifying plants and animals.

When my friends went on their walk in the jungle yesterday, they were paying homage to Linnaeus and the best that the Sanctuary of Truth had to offer even though the university at that time played a critical role between competing forces in society and even though most students attended to obtain, not knowledge, but credentials to enter into unnatural hierarchies.

To be continued.

On Dreaming and Morality: Va-y’chi Genesis 47:28-50:26

On Dreaming and Morality: Va-y’chi Genesis 47:28-50:26

by

Howard Adelman

In the last few blogs, as well as some earlier ones, I wrote about dreamers, individuals who marry personal ambition and self-sacrifice to realize their dreams (La La Land), and those who translate and transform dreamers and dreaming into brilliant works of art (Guillermo del Toro who wrote, produced and directed The Shape of Water). Dreamers belong to a Dionysian world of the imagination, an imagination which insists that reality is complex and not a world of simple and simplistic maxims characteristic of the Apollonian world of reason and Occam’s razor. Reality for the dreamer is about grace rather than gravity.

I repeated the refrain from La La Land about “The Fools Who Dream”:

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make.

Dreamers are fools – or so they seem. They break hearts and make messes. But Elisa in The Shape of Water mends hearts (and as her gills restored), not only her own, but the hearts of the sensitive souls around her. Further, she does not appear to be a mess-maker. After all, she works as a cleaning woman who may, in her imagination, live in la la land, but this Chaplinesque hapless heroine proves that she can be as conniving and courageous, even more so, than the stick figures that rule over her daytime drudgery.

The longest narrative in Genesis is about a person who is purportedly one of the great dreamers of all time, but not a dreamer like his father Jacob. The latter, when fleeing his brother Esau whose blessing from his father he had stolen (going well beyond his treacherous bargaining for his brother’s birthright when he was younger), had a dream. It is a vertical dream of a ladder that reaches up towards the heavens on the rungs of which angels clamber up and down. (Genesis 28: 10-19)

Jacob’s dream is radically opposed to the dreams in the Joseph story. When Joseph was a teenager, he “prophesied” in a perilous pair of dreams that he would lord it over his brothers, though the meaning of the dreams was so plain that he did not have to interpret or divine their meaning. In total insensitivity to his brothers’ natural reaction, he followed his story of his first dream with another dream with the same interpretation. No wonder his father was annoyed with him. When Joseph later interpreted the dreams of the cook and the butler, Joseph did interpret and foretold their radically opposite futures. The situation was similar, though with far greater global and historical consequences, when Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s two dreams.

Joseph’s horizontal dreams, in contrast to Jacob’s vertical one, stretched into the future rather than towards the heavens. In the case of Pharaoh’s dreams, they adumbrated first seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of want. Joseph’s dreams were used for self-elevation and were those of a diviner. Jacob’s dreams were those of one chosen by God. He was guided by predictions delivered by God’s messengers. In contrast, Joseph is the deliverer of the interpretations of messages attributed to God. “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” (41:16) But God does not interpret the dreams for Joseph. Joseph’s story belongs to the wisdom literature of diviners rather than the prophetic literature of the Israelites. As Pharaoh says, and he is not corrected by Joseph, “there is none so discerning and as wise as you.” (41:39)

God spoke to Jacob as he did subsequently to Moses and as he had to Abraham. However, as often as Joseph cites God as the author and the authority behind his dreams, Joseph is never addressed by God. God does not speak to Joseph, even to chastise him, as he does Jonah. God does not reprimand Joseph for engaging in malicious gossip about his brothers when he was a teenager or his enigmatic accusations of their being spies and thieves, and, most significantly, his puzzling demand that they return home and come back to Egypt with their brother Benjamin. He continues this mistreatment, but under the guise of charity, at the end of Genesis. And the irony!

בראשית נ:יט וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף אַל תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי. נ:כ וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה לְמַעַן עֲשֹׂה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה לְהַחֲיֹת עַם רָב.. Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. (Genesis 50:19-20; my italics)

The intentions of his brothers do not matter in moral judgments. For Joseph, a good will is not the only good without qualification and a bad will may even be an expression of God’s will. The divinely inspired dream of Jacob is radically different than the divination dreams of Joseph. Jacob’s dream humbles him. Joseph’s dreams, and even more so, his expertise in interpreting dreams, inflate his ego to proportions well-beyond the narcissistic fabulism of his teenage years. That arrogance is best illustrated when Joseph, in a false humility, claims that his dreams of divination are divinely inspired, that they are not his dreams, but dreams that come unbidden and, therefore, are supposedly delivered by God. He makes this assertion, not God.

Look more closely at the contrasts between Jacob’s dream and those of Joseph or the ones of others that he interprets. Jacob, like most prophetic figures in the bible, is his mother Rebecca’s boy; Joseph is his father’s favourite. Jacob in his flight from his brother Esau travels from west to east, having fled Beersheba for Haran. Joseph is transported from east to west and, not only settles in Egypt, but entices his whole family to leave the Promised Land and resettle alongside himself in Goshen. Jacob’s dream belonged to a certain place and came at a specific time, after he fell asleep at dusk with his head on a rock. Joseph’s dreams are more akin to daydreams and embrace vast territories of space and time rather than having a specific locale at a very specific time. There is no spot that is regarded as holy. There is no encounter with God’s messengers. Jacob’s vision is the guilt dream of a deceiver. Joseph’s dream is that of an achiever, a revealer who never feels a spark of guilt or recognizes his own role in deceiving others and deceiving himself.

Jacob was hated by his brother Esau, Joseph was hated by his ten half-brothers. Esau vowed to kill his brother after their father died; Joseph’s brothers are determined to kill him when Jacob was still very much alive. Joseph is saved at the last minute by Judah who sells him into slavery; Jacob flees towards his dream and purportedly comes to realize his mistakes and their consequences, though he can never accept that his brother loved him and forgave him. Joseph is transported away from his dream; it is his brothers who never cease distrusting him even when Joseph excuses their actions and insists that everything happened according to God’s will. They were not accountable and, by implication, neither was he. We are all mere instruments of divine will, according to Joseph.

The story of Jacob is one of self-transformation. Look at the harsh blessing he gives his sons before he dies compared to those Isaac bestowed on both him and his brother, Esau. The story of Joseph is radically different again. It is a tale of a brilliant administrator who saves the nations under the rule of Pharaoh, but then deprives Egyptians of their autonomy, of their status as freeholders of land. Joseph’s policies reduce them to serfs.

Jacob pursues freedom; Joseph does not, as his dream seemed to foretell, accept his brothers’ offer to become his slaves. But neither does he ever expressly forgive them or hold them accountable for what they did. Instead, he proclaims that there is no autonomy. There is no freedom. We are all instruments of a divine unfolding plan, a plan that made him viceroy over Egypt and the saviour of his family. Joseph claims – God never says it – “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” (45:7, my italics) Joseph sounds like Donald Trump praising his own fabulous contribution, not recognizing that he, Joseph, would be the agent that delivered the Hebrews into years of slavery by a people that resented what Joseph had done to them.

Joseph, unlike Jacob, never hears the words of God, because he is so caught up in his own beauty and brilliance while, at the same time, taking no responsibility for his own actions or assigning responsibility to others for their actions. Joseph is akin to ones who hear the words of the Delphic oracle and can interpret the puzzle, but Joseph cannot hear the words of God that are always direct and straightforward. Further, Joseph always remains totally oblivious of the ironic ultimate meaning of his dream even as he demonstrates the cleverness of a shrewd mind. At the end of Genesis, he claims to understand his dreams as God’s communicating his divine plan to him and, thereby, reveals himself to be a diviner without a prophetic bone in his body.

Jacob goes to sleep at sunset and by sunrise, following his dream, he has moved from distress and angst to the path of deliverance. But in the Joseph story, though there is a deliverance from starvation, there is no moral deliverance. There is no autonomy. There is no responsibility. There is no accountability. But most of all, there is no forgiveness. And forgiveness – the ability to give it and to hold it back – is the highest expression of our freedom. Joseph never has to struggle. Jacob, in contrast, struggled with both humans and God. For those struggles, Jacob, meaning trickery and deceit, was renamed Israel, from שרה, “to strive with” and אל (El), God..

בראשית לב:כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב. לב:כט וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל. Said the Other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” 32:29 Said He, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28-29)

Israel henceforth struggled and tried to be open and straight. But Joseph practiced even greater trickery on his brothers and was not straight. Joseph did not struggle even when he was a slave of Potiphar (Pharaoh’s steward). Potiphar’s wife repeatedly tried to seduce him when he had risen to the status of running the family household and Joseph had been such a blessing to that household. (Joseph would later rise to the status of running the whole of the Pharaonic kingdom.) God was always at Joseph’s side, but God never intervened on his behalf. The text reads:

בראשית לט:ב וַיְהִי יְ-הוָה אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ וַיְהִי בְּבֵית אֲדֹנָיו הַמִּצְרִי. לט:ג וַיַּרְא אֲדֹנָיו כִּי יְ-הוָה אִתּוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה יְ-הוָה מַצְלִיחַ בְּיָדוֹ… לט:ה וַיְהִי מֵאָז הִפְקִיד אֹתוֹ בְּבֵיתוֹ וְעַל כָּל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ וַיְבָרֶךְ יְ-הוָה אֶת בֵּית הַמִּצְרִי בִּגְלַל יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי בִּרְכַּת יְ-הוָה בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ בַּבַּיִת וּבַשָּׂדֶה. YHWH was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. And when his master saw that YHWH was with him and that YHWH lent success to everything he undertook… And from the time that the Egyptian put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, YHWH blessed his house for Joseph’s sake, so that the blessing of YHWH was upon everything that he owned, in the house and outside. (Genesis 39: 2-5)

Joseph rejected the advances of Potiphar’s wife, a theme of wisdom rather than prophetic literature. Why? Because, as he claimed, Potiphar has placed his complete trust in Joseph and put everything, except his wife, in his hands. How could Joseph make her husband a cuckold? That would be wicked and a sin before God. (Genesis 39:9) Joseph escapes, but leaves his coat behind. Potiphar’s wife uses it as evidence that Joseph had tried to sleep with her, just as Joseph’s brothers once used his coat of many colours to cover it with blood and claim that animals had probably killed Joseph.

Again, at another disastrous negative turn in his life, God evidently intervenes again. Joseph is delivered and raised up to a higher status. Is that because he declined to do a wicked thing with Potiphar’s wife? But if each turn and twist is about God’s predetermined plan, then he cannot take credit for his good fortune. Nor does he deserve any credit, even without God’s help, for he makes clear that he rejects her offers to sleep with her because he does not want to jeopardize his social and economic status. Jacob betrayed his brother’s and his father’s trust. Joseph, much sharper politically, refused to make that mistake, but is unjustly thrown into jail for his efforts. He repeatedly professes his innocence. At four different points in the overall story, he insists that everything that takes place is a manifestation of the guiding hand of God.

God, not Joseph, brought these events to pass. Joseph insists that he was not responsible for the good that emerged. But then neither could he be held responsible for the bad. And, because of the blindness of his soul, rather than that of his eyes, he will bring about the greatest calamity for the Israelites – their departure from the Promised Land and their eventual enslavement in Egypt, resented as they must have been by the Egyptians who had been reduced from freemen to serfs by Joseph. When Joseph introduces his father to his two sons when Israel’s eyes “were dim with age,” Israel switches the blessing in contrast to the trickery of his own father, he blesses the younger before the older. And he blesses Joseph and is no longer capable of struggling with God. He blesses Joseph and prophesizes, “God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.” (48:21) But, as it turns out, only to bury his father and then to resettle the Israelites in a foreign land.

Immanuel Kant insisted that the categorical imperative to treat others never as means to an end only is the sine qua non without which there can be no moral code. Others must be respected. Others must be recognized for being free men responsible for their own actions. This is the fundamental principle without which there can be no moral behaviour. Freedom is the essence of morality, freedom which directs one’s attention to the needs of others rather than one’s own passions and desires. Joseph is oblivious of others’ needs, even though he emerged as a remarkable diviner and administrator.

Forgiveness is both the recognition of the other’s flaws and the error of their ways as well as the recognition of their autonomy and their need to take responsibility for their deeds. Joseph never gives his brothers an opportunity to repent and never offers them forgiveness. Instead, he relies on the old empty maxim that God is responsible for all that is and for all that takes place. None of us are responsible for our own actions. Joseph carries this principle forward to provide a ground for converting the status of free and autonomous Egyptian farmers to serfs and, therefore, indirectly to the recompense to the Hebrews when they are made slaves in Egypt.ut Kant was not a dreamer. For it is reason which provides the foundation for morality. It is reason that provides the foundation for the recognition of beauty. In this way, rather than Apollo being at loggerheads with Dionysius, reason permits scientific knowledge, morality and aesthetics to be complementary and consistent. In Kant’s world of ends and final causes, in his teleological worldview and recognition of judgment as the ultimate arbiter, science and morality can be reconciled. Kant cannot bless the ones who dream, cannot bless those who are foolish, cannot bless those who fall from grace from his lofty perch of his pure practical moral reasoning based on a maxim that is the ultimate expression of Occam’s razor. Kant cannot bless those whose hearts ache for the other, and, ultimately, cannot accept the mess they make.

However, rationalists like Kant are not the only enemies of dreamers. Diviners who pose as dreamers are even greater foes. They deny freedom by viewing the future as pre-determined by a divine hand. They deny freedom by eliminating forgiveness from their vocabulary. They deny freedom by eliminating the principle that each one of us is responsible and accountable for his or her own actions.

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

by

Howard Adelman

This section of the Torah offers a plethora of topics to consider. I offer a dozen:

  1. Why Jacob left Eretz Israel for Harar as an introduction to Israel-Diaspora Relations
  2. God of Time and Place
  3. Jacob’s Dream of the Ladder as an impetus to discuss horizontality versus verticality and the stairway or gateway to heaven; the ups and downs of belief
  4. Jacob’s Conditional Contract with God rather than Categorical Covenant
  5. Rachel at the Well
  6. Beauty
  7. Laban’s Deceit and Tricking Jacob
  8. Jacob’s Relationship to his Two Wives
  9. Jacob and his Uncle Laban
  10. Proxy Wives
  11. Conceiving and Naming Children
  12. Jacob’s Revenge on Laban: Streaked, Speckled and Spotted Young

Though tempted to write on the first (Israel-Diaspora Relations), I have chosen to write on beauty and reserve the other topic for another time. The latter seems a pressing matter given Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipy Hotovely’s allegedly very recent reprimand of American Jews for failing to send their children to “fight for their country.” However, it is also a very deep and profound political issue on which I want to reflect at greater length. Beauty, on the other hand, appears to be a relatively superficial issue.

Verses 16 and 17 of Chapter 29 of Genesis reads as follows:

16. Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.   טזוּלְלָבָ֖ן שְׁתֵּ֣י בָנ֑וֹת שֵׁ֤ם הַגְּדֹלָה֙ לֵאָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַקְּטַנָּ֖ה רָחֵֽל:
17. Leah’s eyes were tender, but Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion.   יזוְעֵינֵ֥י לֵאָ֖ה רַכּ֑וֹת וְרָחֵל֨ הָֽיְתָ֔ה יְפַת־תֹּ֖אַר וִיפַ֥ת מַרְאֶֽה:

In the Plaut translation, Leah’s eyes are said to be רַכּ֑וֹת – translated as weak rather than tender. The adjective seems to have the same root as Rachel’s name, that is, רַך meaning tender, delicate or soft

Why is the term translated as “weak”? And what is the relationship between Rachel’s name and the depiction of Leah’s eyes? Do eyes reflect the soul? In a footnote, Plaut appears to undermine the translation in the body of the text: “It seems preferable to translate this as “tender eyes”, for the contrast is not between ugliness and beauty but between two types of attraction.” Plaut offers one escape from the apparent conclusion in the plain reading of the text that the ancient Israelites placed a great deal of importance on superficial beauty, that is, beauty that is on the surface, that appears, and not beauty simply as a manifestation of an “inner” beauty.

There are many cop-outs from this conclusion. There are different types of beauty. Beauty is only skin deep and what counts is inner beauty. Or beauty is a temptation offered by the devil.

The Greeks had a different escape route. Beauty was a transcendental value rather than phenomenological. Hence, what counted was eternal beauty, beauty that was timeless. In yesterday’s Toronto Daily Star, there was a story about Cindy Crawford at fifty and her “timeless beauty,” that is, as magnificent in her appearance at the age of fifty as she was when she was twenty. In this week’s Tablet.  An article on “Bombshell,” a documentary on Hedy Lamarr, a remote and haunting beauty of Jewish descent from an even earlier era than most readers can remember, told a tale of the most gorgeous woman in Hollywood at the time. But it is also a story of the brilliance behind the glamour, for Hedy Lamarr was also an amateur inventor who, with her colleague, the composer George Antheil, invented a frequency hopping radio device, the necessary precursor to wireless communication and WiFi. It was their contribution to the war effort and the desire to destroy Hitler.

Did Hedy Lamarr’s bewitching beauty and ascent into Hollywood’s stratosphere undermine her creative intellectual genius or even her development as an actress as she perfected her portrait of vixens and sultry and sensuous women climaxing with her role as Delilah in the biblical story of her relationship with Sampson? Can such beauty become so unearthly than it undermines productivity altogether and ends up sending its possessor into seclusion?

For the Greeks, beauty sat alongside two other transcendental values – Goodness and Truth. The main philosophic disciplines were, therefore Aesthetics, Ethics and Logic or the Science of Reason. The three are related to what we feel, what we desire and what we think. In Plato’s Phaedrus, these three primary drives as parts of the soul and corresponding transcendental values allow humans to soar towards the heavens.

There is also a hierarchy among the three, beauty being the least of them and reason the highest with goodness placed betwixt the two others. We progress from the body which is fair, to fairness and then to the highest rational forms which are both fair in appearance as well as in essence so that the shapely and the good together become the absolute beauty of truth. Aristotle connected each respectively with productivity, practicality and theory. Immanuel Kant would connect the three with judgement, practical reason and pure reason as a priori transcendental conditions of being-in-the-world rather than ways of rising above this world.

There is no indication in the Torah that beauty has a transcendental value in any of the above senses, though rabbis would later place the primary emphasis on “inner beauty”. But I am concerned with beauty as it appears, as it is expressed in the construction of the Mishkan later, in the depiction of Rachel (as well as Rebecca and Sarah), but also in the portrait of Absalom who is depicted as a man of beauty but NOT of morality.

One apparent message of the Torah is that beauty is indeed related to productivity as Aristotle claimed, but in a very opposite way since there is such a close relationship in the Torah stories between the beauty of these women and their incapacity, in the case of Rachel and Sarah, to have children. Did their beauty in some way connect with their being barren? In Aristotle, beauty is connected with the products of craftsmen. In the case of women, do the founding fathers objectify women and regard them as things, as objects to be admired rather than as agents? Did their beauty somehow relate to their lack of agency in producing progeny?

Why then does the Torah appear to ascribe high value to beauty? Is it related to or counterpoised against motherhood, even if women, particularly beautiful ones, seem intent on bringing beauty into all aspects of life. Does beauty serve to obscure other qualities she possesses? In the Torah, Sarah’s disdain of what appear to be false promises and her jealousy of Hagar are on full display. So is Rebecca’s initiative, goodness and generosity, but also her favouritism and conniving. And what of Rachel?

In the biblical text itself, another notion of beauty would appear to come to the fore, not beauty as either an adjunct of productivity or a subversive force undermining it, but beauty itself as a deception, as futile, as a distraction. Beauty is not just aligned with malignant propensities, but is itself a danger. What makes a woman good – that she be God-fearing; this is what counts, not beauty. Yet, as my daughter’s essay on the Mishkan illustrated, in the construction of the tabernacle, enormous emphasis was placed on texture and colour, on decoration and beauty. The Torah suggests that emphasizing the spiritual at the expense of the physical, the internal at the expense of the external and especially physical beauty, is misconceived. Beauty penetrates the greatest inner sanctum of the Jewish spiritual realm.

There is no contradiction between external beauty and inner spiritual beauty. But neither is there any necessary correlation. However, there are risks associated with beauty – that powerful men may be attracted by the beauty of one’s wife as in the case of Sarah in the stories of Abraham and Pharaoh and of Abraham and Abimelech. However, there are also advantages as well as risks as depicted in the Book of Esther when the latter’s beauty bewitched King Ahasuerus.

Though brought up in Talmud Torah to believe that beauty, quoting Proverbs, was indeed vain – which made beauty all the more attractive to me – beauty has come to have enormous value to me as it had for Abraham, for Isaac and for Jacob. That value is not accompanied by connecting beauty with moral excellence. Nor is the value based on considering women as having different kinds of beauty or only being beautiful if she has an internal beauty. Finally, that beauty and attention to it is not considered by me to be a moral failure. Rachel was shapely and beautiful to look at. That beauty was not confined to women as Joseph had his mother’s beauty. Was that why he was Jacob’s favourite? But Joseph flaunted his beauty; Rachel did not.

The Torah, unlike the Greeks, did not give a transcendental value to beauty. Neither was beauty a reflection of an internal character – Ruth was perhaps the most “beautiful” woman in the Bible in that sense though not described as physically beautiful. There seems to be no indication of external appearances reflecting or emanating inner goodness. There is no inherent connection between physical beauty and inner moral fibre. Beauty just is, there to be appreciated, but a characteristic tied to both risk and opportunity, a factor which may be crucial to a story since Jacob apparently preferred Rachel over Leah because of her beauty. But the Kingdom of David would descend from Leah, not Rachel. Of the children of Jacob’s wives and concubines, Levi and Judah are both children of Leah.

Beauty is just part of reality, to be admired and appreciated but not denigrated, to inspire both the good as well as the bad. The Greeks fought a ten-year war with the Persians because of the kidnapping of the beauty, Helen, but there is no inherent moral lesson, positive or negative, in the depictions of beauty in the Torah. On the other hand, if one only looks at outward appearances and fails to take into account the inner spirit of an individual, that is a failure. Rachel like Rebecca, though different, had a very vital inner spirit as well as external beauty. In the Torah, there is no moral lesson to be derived from the appearance of beauty.

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

by

Howard Adelman

This section of the Torah offers a plethora of topics to consider. I offer a dozen:

  1. Why Jacob left Eretz Israel for Harar as an introduction to Israel-Diaspora Relations
  2. God of Time and Place
  3. Jacob’s Dream of the Ladder as an impetus to discuss horizontality versus verticality and the stairway or gateway to heaven; the ups and downs of belief
  4. Jacob’s Conditional Contract with God rather than Categorical Covenant
  5. Rachel at the Well
  6. Beauty
  7. Laban’s Deceit and Tricking Jacob
  8. Jacob’s Relationship to his Two Wives
  9. Jacob and his Uncle Laban
  10. Proxy Wives
  11. Conceiving and Naming Children
  12. Jacob’s Revenge on Laban: Streaked, Speckled and Spotted Young

Though tempted to write on the first (Israel-Diaspora Relations), I have chosen to write on beauty and reserve the other topic for another time. The latter seems a pressing matter given Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipy Hotovely’s very recent reprimand of American Jews for failing to send their children to “fight for their country.” However, it is also a very deep and profound political issue on which I want to reflect at greater length. Beauty, on the other hand, appears to be a relatively superficial issue.

Verses 16 and 17 of Chapter 29 of Genesis reads as follows:

16. Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.   טזוּלְלָבָ֖ן שְׁתֵּ֣י בָנ֑וֹת שֵׁ֤ם הַגְּדֹלָה֙ לֵאָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַקְּטַנָּ֖ה רָחֵֽל:
17. Leah’s eyes were tender, but Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion.   יזוְעֵינֵ֥י לֵאָ֖ה רַכּ֑וֹת וְרָחֵל֨ הָֽיְתָ֔ה יְפַת־תֹּ֖אַר וִיפַ֥ת מַרְאֶֽה:

In the Plaut translation, Leah’s eyes are said to be רַכּ֑וֹת – translated as weak rather than tender. The adjective seems to have the same root as Rachel’s name, that is, רַך meaning tender, delicate or soft

Why is the term translated as “weak”? And what is the relationship between Rachel’s name and the depiction of Leah’s eyes? Do eyes reflect the soul? In a footnote, Plaut appears to undermine the translation in the body of the text: “It seems preferable to translate this as “tender eyes”, for the contrast is not between ugliness and beauty but between two types of attraction.” Plaut offers one escape from the apparent conclusion in the plain reading of the text that the ancient Israelites placed a great deal of importance on superficial beauty, that is, beauty that is on the surface, that appears, and not beauty simply as a manifestation of an “inner” beauty.

There are many cop-outs from this conclusion. There are different types of beauty. Beauty is only skin deep and what counts is inner beauty. Or beauty is a temptation offered by the devil.

The Greeks had a different escape route. Beauty was a transcendental value rather than phenomenological. Hence, what counted was eternal beauty, beauty that was timeless. In yesterday’s Toronto Daily Star, there was a story about Cindy Crawford at fifty and her “timeless beauty,” that is, as magnificent in her appearance at the age of fifty as she was when she was twenty. In this week’s Tablet.  An article on “Bombshell,” a documentary on Hedy Lamarr, a remote and haunting beauty of Jewish descent from an even earlier era than most readers can remember, told a tale of the most gorgeous woman in Hollywood at the time. But it is also a story of the brilliance behind the glamour, for Hedy Lamarr was also an amateur inventor who, with her colleague, the composer George Antheil, invented a frequency hopping radio device, the necessary precursor to wireless communication and WiFi. It was their contribution to the war effort and the desire to destroy Hitler.

Did Hedy Lamarr’s bewitching beauty and ascent into Hollywood’s stratosphere undermine her creative intellectual genius or even her development as an actress as she perfected her portrait of vixens and sultry and sensuous women climaxing with her role as Delilah in the biblical story of her relationship with Sampson? Can such beauty become so unearthly than it undermines productivity altogether and ends up sending its possessor into seclusion?

For the Greeks, beauty sat alongside two other transcendental values – Goodness and Truth. The main philosophic disciplines were, therefore Aesthetics, Ethics and Logic or the Science of Reason. The three are related to what we feel, what we desire and what we think. In Plato’s Phaedrus, these three primary drives as parts of the soul and corresponding transcendental values allow humans to soar towards the heavens.

There is also a hierarchy among the three, beauty being the least of them and reason the highest with goodness placed betwixt the two others. We progress from the body which is fair, to fairness and then to the highest rational forms which are both fair in appearance as well as in essence so that the shapely and the good together become the absolute beauty of truth. Aristotle connected each respectively with productivity, practicality and theory. Immanuel Kant would connect the three with judgement, practical reason and pure reason as a priori transcendental conditions of being-in-the-world rather than ways of rising above this world.

There is no sense in the Torah that beauty has a transcendental value in any of these senses, though rabbis would later place the primary emphasis on “inner beauty”. But I am concerned with beauty as it appears, as it is expressed in the construction of the Mishkan later, in the depiction of Rachel (as well as Rebecca and Sarah), but also in the portrait of Absalom who is portrayed as a man of beauty but NOT of morality.

One apparent message of the Torah is that beauty is indeed related to productivity as Aristotle claimed, but in a very opposite way since there is such a close relationship in the Torah stories between the beauty of these women and their incapacity, in the case of Rachel and Sarah, to have children. Did their beauty in some way connect with their being barren? In Aristotle, beauty is connected with the products of craftsmen. In the case of women, do the founding fathers objectify women and regard them as things, as objects to be admired rather than as agents? Did their beauty somehow relate to their lack of agency in producing progeny?

Why then does the Torah appear to ascribe high value to beauty? Is it related to or counterpoised against motherhood, even if women, particularly beautiful ones, seem intent on bringing beauty into all aspects of life. Does beauty serve to obscure other qualities she possesses? In the Torah, Sarah’s disdain of what appear to be false promises and her jealousy of Hagar are on full display. So is Rebecca’s initiative, goodness and generosity, but also her favouritism and conniving. And what of Rachel?

In the biblical text itself, another notion of beauty would appear to come to the fore, not beauty as either an adjunct of productivity or a subversive force undermining it, but beauty itself as a deception, as futile, as a distraction. Beauty is not just aligned with malignant propensities, but is itself a danger. What makes a woman good – that she be God-fearing; this is what counts, not beauty. Yet, as my daughter’s essay on the Mishkan illustrated, in the construction of the tabernacle, enormous emphasis was placed on texture and colour, on decoration and beauty. The Torah suggests that emphasizing the spiritual at the expense of the physical, the internal at the expense of the external and especially physical beauty, is misconceived. Beauty penetrates the greatest inner sanctum of the Jewish spiritual realm.

There is no contradiction between external beauty and inner spiritual beauty. But neither is there any necessary correlation. However, there are risks associated with beauty – that powerful men may be attracted by the beauty of one’s wife as in the case of Sarah in the stories of Abraham and Pharaoh and of Abraham and Abimelech. However, there are also advantages as well as risks as depicted in the Book of Esther when the latter’s beauty bewitched King Ahasuerus.

Though brought up in Talmud Torah to believe that beauty, quoting Proverbs, was indeed vain – which made beauty all the more attractive to me – beauty has come to have enormous value to me as it had for Abraham, for Isaac and for Jacob. That value is not accompanied by an ethical relief of connecting beauty with moral excellence, with considering women as having different kinds of beauty or, even more disruptive, of a woman only being beautiful if she has an internal beauty, and, finally, that beauty and attention to it is a moral failure. Rachel was shapely and beautiful to look at. That beauty was not confined to women as Joseph had his mother’s beauty. Was that why he was Jacob’s favourite? But Jacob flaunted his beauty; Rachel did not.

The Torah, unlike the Greeks, did not give a transcendental value to beauty. Neither was beauty a reflection of an internal character – Ruth was perhaps the most “beautiful” woman in the Bible in that sense though not described as physically beautiful. There seems to be no indication of external appearances reflecting or emanating inner goodness. There is no inherent connection between physical beauty and inner moral fibre. Beauty just is, there to be appreciated, but a characteristic tied to both risk and opportunity, a factor which may be crucial to a story since Jacob apparently preferred Rachel over Leah because of her beauty. But the Kingdom of David would descend from Leah, not Rachel. Of the children of Jacob’s wives and concubines, Levi and Judah are both children of Leah.

Beauty is just part of reality, to be admired and appreciated but not denigrated, to inspire both the good as well as the bad. The Greeks fought a ten-year war with the Persians because of the kidnapping of the beauty, Helen, but there is no inherent moral lesson, positive or negative, in the depictions of beauty in the Torah. On the other hand, if one only looks at outward appearances and fails to take into account the inner spirit of an individual, that is a failure. Rachel like Rebecca, though different, had a very vital inner spirit as well as external beauty. There is no moral lesson to be derived from the appearance of beauty.

 

The Underpinnings of Canada’s Civic Religion

The Underpinnings of Canada’s Civic Religion

by

Howard Adelman

Last week in Ottawa, I attended an interfaith conference called, “Our Whole Society: Religion and Citizenship at Canada’s 150th.” My talk, indeed the panel I was on, addressed the issue of immigration and refugees. A short report on my talk can be found in Peter Stockland’s article, “How Faith Fosters Civility,” in the magazine, Convivium, 19 May 2017:  https://www.convivium.ca/articles/how-faith-fosters-civility. I will elaborate on the talk I gave in a subsequent blog.

There are five in this series:

  1. Underpinnings
  2. Undercutting and Reinforcing
  3. Democratic Deficit
  4. Political Communication
  5. Canada’s Civic Religion

In this blog, I want to deal with the presumptions underpinning my observations of Canada’s civic religion. If you are disinterested in philosophical grounding, skip this blog. In subsequent blogs in the series, I will point to the conclusions of various communication sciences to indicate why the values of Canada’s civic religion, as best articulated in interfaith dialogue, will not save Canada from the disaster afflicting America. Only then will I provide a more comprehensive articulation of the norms of that civic religion and offer a critique.

The term “civic religion” may seem inherently contradictory. After all, we live in the Western world where there is a strict separation of religion and the state. Civic, in the sense used here, refers to civic duties of citizens of a state. Thus, we have a moral duty to vote, not as an inherent belief of one’s religion, but as a member of a democratic polity. Civic duties are about this world. Religious duties are often conceived to be about the world to come or about the transcendental power of a divine being that manifests itself in different beliefs and practices and, indeed, worship. Reason is purportedly the language of politics; faith is the language of religion. That religion has values which are used to inform conduct in this world. However, it is precisely this separation of the religious and secular worlds that is in play.

Immanuel Kant wrote that his efforts were undertaken to define the boundaries of reason and of knowledge to make room for faith. But his perspective shifted over his period of intellectual development. After the peak of his intellectual output for which he is best known, his voluminous three Critiques, published between 1787 and 1790, propounded the view in the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason that, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.” Subsequently, his definition of limits to reason and knowledge to make room for faith began to make room for a more subversive position. He asserted that religion was and had to be rational and had to provide the foundations of our values. Religion permeated civil and political society to constitute the core values of a society. God emerged from this intellectual journey as immanent rather than transcendent. This series of blogs is an exploration of how this took place in Canada.

There are many reasons offered for this shift, including non-rational ones, such as his resentment against the Prussian Junkers under Frederick William II for attempting to censor his writings on religion – Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. There were also cultural influences – his initial pietism stressing biblical study and moral behaviour, but later rejection of the side of pietism that celebrated external religious displays. His inherited Enlightenment convictions concerning the rule of reason led first to his rejection of creationism, and later his rejection of the belief that religion, and even science as a pursuit rather than a method, could be founded on reason alone. He became convinced that a rationally-based religion was not possible; religion was a matter of non-rational faith and had to retreat to make room for the universal truths of Newtonian science as he pursued the goal of rooting science in reason alone independent of an omniscient and perfect divine being. Finally, there was also the influence of Hume’s scepticism that rooted both religious faith and even scientific pursuits on habits forged by history and culture.

How are the dimensions of reason and empiricism, as well as reason and faith, reconciled? As he articulated his doctrine in his triad of great books, the Critiques, the reconciliation lay in the necessary preconditions for both faith and reason, of both empirical (the premise of causation) and deductive methods. For all were rooted in the necessary conditions for any thinking as revealed in his unique transcendental method that allowed for faith outside but ethical behaviour within the bounds of reason. Scientific reason, moral behaviour and practical judgement, even as they relied on experiential input, were all based fundamentally on a priori premises that were universally valid and a precondition of any thought whatsoever.

What emerged was the development of an ethical religion. For an adherent, it did not matter whether one was a Jew or a Lutheran. Both could worship the same God in defence of the same set of values that were themselves as universal as any religious creed. Establishment Jews in large numbers in Germany – the Polanyi, the Stern, the Baum families, abut whom I have been writing – converted to Lutheranism to practice the common ethical moralism of German society, ignoring entirely the deep roots of antisemitism in the writings of Martin Luther, the founder of that church. Of course, conversion also was opportunistic since the formal rules often banned Jews from taking up professorships in universities at one time. Karl Polanyi would develop an ethical economics, Fritz Stern an ethical history of Germany, Gregory Baum an ethical sociology and theology. Kant had introduced a seismic revolution for both Christianity and Judaism to allow both to live on the surface in imperfect harmony.

The superficiality of that harmony was revealed by Hegel and was ripped asunder by Friedrich Nietzsche. Emil Fackenheim, in The Religious Dimensions of Hegel’s Thought, pointed out that Hegel’s central critique of Kant was that the latter had failed, and failed absolutely, to reconcile faith and reason. And not just in thought, but in political and religious institutions. Kant facilitated mindblindness. Revolutionary forces were underway and Kant provided a rationale that allowed a positive ethical external religion to provide a cover that left the dynamics of ecstasy and action as well as the enthusiastic creative energy of spirit behind. Life throbbed. Kant only offered lifeless thought.

Hegel showed that philosophy, rather than being divorced from history in abstract thought, was, and had to be, understood as thoroughly rooted in context. Time and space were not abstract dimensions of sensibility and thought, but the experiential realities from which even barren thought arose. History was about resolving incongruences, not just the abstract ones at the core of Kantianism. History was about desire and passion, about power and economic needs, and, in the end, about conflict between old, outmoded institutions and the demands (and shortcomings) of the new. Philosophy was historical, not ahistorical. Further, life and philosophy were inherently religious as will become clear by the end of this series of blogs. And the comprehending activity of religion had itself to be critiqued and comprehended. The absolute was with us in every age and time and we comprehend the divine and the shortcomings of our comprehension through the examination of the absolutes of our time.

All our gods, all our absolutes, have failed and must be resurrected anew for each period. Judaism, unlike the Christianity of Kant’s Prussia or the Weimar Republic over a century later, understood that all these gods were different aspects of the one God that revealed himself in history while Christianity was a repeated effort to flee that insight, to flee its basic foundation, in favour of Greek abstract and ahistorical thought and theology. In reality, God descends, becomes immanent and sacrifices Himself in different modes in different times. Those who dub this as a progressive transformation are blind to the destructive forces let loose by the process of transformation as we experience at each stage the death of god and are required to go through a period of suffering and sacrifice.

In Hegel’s time, and in our own almost universally, man has once again repeated the ultimate sin, the sin of idolatry, the sin of narcissism, the sin of regarding and worshipping himself as divine. The alternative to the vision of an omniscient and omnipotent god need not be worship of the self and the ability of the individual to engage in self-realization and self-transformation. The latter sin and that idolatry, as well as the cover up for it, must be observed in the particulars of our time and the thought in which and through which history is understood and reflected. What we must search for and uncover is the partiality of all thought. Every attempt to comprehend it all will be doomed to be shattered as much as we may have faith in its overarching vision. Spirit itself as revealed in time is always partial and explains why we can never see and confront the face of God head on.

At the very beginning of the nineteenth century, Hegel defended twelve theses at a formal Disputation to earn his right to offer university lectures. The problem of philosophy was not the search for eternal and infinite wisdom, but the effort to reconcile the vision of the perfect with the reality of the imperfect, insisting that Kant had become frozen in carrying through the radicalism of Hume’s scepticism and had carried rational philosophy to a dead end by finding an absolute in itself, and becoming uncritical of itself.

In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the last section follows the section on Spirit with a portion on Religion, that discusses how we manifest our abstract religious beliefs and values in everyday life. Consciousness is institutionalized. And consciousness is merely the reflection of and reflection into human experience. Morality that is certain of itself becomes the distillation of that religious consciousness.

If Marx became the anti-Hegel by sacrificing religion in worship of the material realm, Nietzsche became the anti-Hegel by sacrificing religion to save spirit. Nietzsche’s enemy was Christianity, that element of and phase of Judaism that failed to recover from its exile in Babylon and return. Instead, Judaism turned inwards and became frightened. Nietzsche challenged the retreat into oneself in favour of the transvaluation of values, in favour of radical inversion of morality managed solely by the heroic individual. Instead, he opted to return to a form of paganism as he expressed in Ecce Homo, the need to develop a new breed of men, an elite, not one that led the workers of the world in revolt, but ones dedicated to taking humanity to a higher level. The premise, which challenged both the Judeo-Christian precepts and Kantian morality, was a denial, not simply as Hegel contended that humans were unequal in different ways at different times in their spiritual epic journey, but that salvation, as Marx insisted, depended on an avant-garde, an elite that led humanity into transforming itself fundamentally.

In Nietzsche’s view, Judaism once embraced this spirit of conquest, this consciousness of the necessity of power, both over others and to transform oneself, and the joy and hope to be found therein. But that spirit of self-transformation had been lost with rabbinic Judaism and its turn inward to legalism and with Christianity in the absolute submission of man in service of a divine Other. It was then that Jews sold themselves short and sold out to legalism and were sold out in turn and subsequently became the victims of persecution of those who rejected the rule of law in favour of suffering and sacrifice and the need of a scapegoat to escape that outcome for themselves. Diaspora Jews, who could and were in a position to save humanity and resurrect the life spirit according to Friedrich Nietzsche, largely cowered in fear and accommodated themselves to the dominating force of authority instead of expressing their historical dynamism by returning to nature, by returning to their roots in the land to once again become the strongest and toughest people on earth. Nietzsche did not live to see the rise of Zionism.

How were humans to accomplish this? Not by receding from history in service to the eternal and not by accommodating the dominant ethos of the status quo. Nor by expressing resentment concerning a disillusioned secular world, a world that had lost its sense of enchantment and awe to find deliverance either in the ecstatic escape of unreason or an escape into reason, individualism, self-making and self-overcoming.

Hitler declared, and Donald Trump now concurs, that, “The national government will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built up. Christianity is the foundation of our national morality and the family the basis of national life.” Hitler and Trump offered a mystical brew of pseudo-religion and purported self-interest that would soon reveal itself as the interest of the few and the deception and seduction of the many. What we need to examine is how, following Hegel, the dialectic of history has come to be interpreted pragmatically in the form of a set of overriding Kantian values for our time, and how that set of values, while inspiring high moral accomplishments, also blinds us the weaknesses of our own position as we are appalled at the values that we see articulated by Hitler copycats.

In Hegel’s time, it meant that Protestant clergy remained hostile to the truly liberal state as well as to Jews who refused to convert. Today, it means that this clergy embraces the values of the liberal state as well as their Jewish brethren. They have thrown overboard the doctrine of supersession in favour of shared beliefs, not only with Judaism, but with all other faiths. Some commentators believe that Democrats believe that all American Democrats need to do is copy Canadians and articulate the core values of the American civic religion in terms of historical connections and metaphors that touch their constituents.

An examination, first of our underlying nature and of various sciences, especially those involving communication, will try to show why that will not work (tomorrow), while, in the final blog in this series, a critique of Canadian interfaith values will try to delineate the shortcomings in terms of the population they do not reach and the declining power and efficaciousness of the civic religion of Canada.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Arch of Justice

The Arch of Justice

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. day. He was oft quoted as saying, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I only know this because Barack Obama loved to quote it and credit King. But he credited him with uttering the aphorism. Evidently, the originator was Theodore Parker in 1848 who offered it as a brief ode to hope and a belief in ethical progress. As Obama and others have recognized, however – this became a major theme of his final presidential address to the nation – the arc only bends if the people stand up and make it swing down and touch the earth. Without that effort, justice shoots off to the heavens to become an icon of aspiration instead of a practical reality here on earth.

Given the recent American election, can people still believe this is true? Can it be true of the Middle East? Of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And what is the nature of that justice? And justice for whom?

Parker was a Unitarian, an abolitionist and, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a Transcendentalist. Parker, like many before and after him, was especially influenced by the new Higher Biblical Criticism as those who followed were influenced by Source Criticism. He became convinced that the tales of dreams and prophecies of the Torah and of miracles and miraculous births of the New Testament lacked any truth value. He emerged from his spiritual quest as a naturalist, convinced that the divine was an intimate part of all of nature. What remained true in Christianity was its moral essence, the ethical teachings of Jesus.

Hence, he became a modernist. Religion required obedience to a higher Being. It required constructing a dependence on God and the institutions on earth responsible for conveying that message of obedience and even conformity with its rules. Morality, as Immanuel Kant had argued, was another matter and could not be reduced to religion. For moral principles were the sine qua non of behaviour without which there could be neither good nor bad. The basic principles of morality were a priori, as fundamental to the laws of human behaviour as gravity was to the laws of nature. They were transcendental preconditions of moral behaviour altogether and could not be distilled into religious directives. Morality requires right action and obedience to the conscience of the individual. Religion required obedience to an Other – God, the Church or an Authoritarian regime in a political system built on the same principles as religion while dispensing with God.

The attraction to authoritarian rule was almost as innate as conscience, but it was a propensity, not an a priori transcendental principle. “No feeling is more deeply planted in human nature than the tendency to adore a superior being, to reverence him, to bow before him, to feel his presence, to pray to him for aid in times of need.” But it was a planted feeling, one inculcated in both slave owners and their slaves, in religious leaders as well as their followers, in politicians who sought dominion and in citizens who sought an escape from the burdens and responsibility of freedom. When the heart is full of hope, divorced from personal effort, joy fills the air and a leader may be blessed. When that hope comes crashing down to earth, rejoicing turns to despair and the followers will seek to burn their fallen leader as an effigy. However, if one accepts that the whole world is divine, if one accepts that God lives within oneself, if one accepts that it is one’s responsibility and one’s responsibility alone to create the world as a living and vibrant moral universe, if one becomes convinced that this responsibility cannot be displaced onto another, then you have the premise for being both a moral and a responsible individual, two sides of the same coin.

It would be a theology that would be the counterpoint to authoritarianism so that even a religion as communitarian as Judaism would fall under its spell as liberal Jewish theologians became enamoured with the “autonomous self” as the only alternative to the authoritarianism of politicians and rabbis alike. The conviction of Theodore Parker became so pure that it even initially pushed him outside of even the pale of the Unitarian Church for a time before that church “canonized” him. Martin Luther King Jr. never went nearly that far. He was a communitarian in his heart and soul and believed in the power of his people, as Black Americans and as Americans of any colour or ethnicity. Individual conscience was never enough. One needed the power of the people to sustain oneself in battle and to provide the foot soldiers for that battle.

The issue was whether the people were to be lead by men of conscience or by reprobates, by liars, by those who were at base misanthropes, by men (perhaps even sometimes women) of no conscience, by men who fed off but showed utter disdain for the power of the people that they exploited in the name of attacking the institutional powers in place. Secular Protestantism was susceptible to seduction by the charms of a charlatan. And there were plenty around who offered to lead the people to greatness rather than to live under a brighter light, offered “our” power rather “theirs,” offered power at all rather than movement towards self-empowerment.

If the arc of justice is to be your guide, if it requires your effort to bend that arc towards the earth for the benefit of humanity, how does that help you in dealing with major international political problems like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It is one thing to rely upon the metaphor as a guide for domestic politics and social organizing. It is quite another to use it in service of international negotiations. But it is very far from impossible.

First, it requires each party to recognize the Other, however inferior that Other may be in the power it holds, in fact, in spite of the weak position of the Other. It requires recognizing the Other as worthy of equal respect and dignity as humans. This applies as well to the recognition required by the weak party as well. They too must see the Other, not as an overbearing demon, but as a group driven by demons of insecurity and fears. But also driven by its own dreams and aspirations. Respect of each party of the other becomes a primary condition for reconciliation and peace.

Second, it requires not relying on outsiders to bring pressure and force to bear on settling the matter. Influence, certainly. But not external authority or power. The mantra that the Palestinians and the Jewish Israelis are the only ones who can make peace must be a fundamental building block.

Third, it requires realism. If the arc of justice is to bend towards the earth, then the justice required is the justice on the ground, the justice that takes into account the needs and desires and aspirations of all of those wherever they live in the territory of the conflict. The mistake in Gaza was not the military withdrawal of the Israelis, but moral withdrawal of the Israelis, the decision to abandon not just leave Gaza and, thus, also to surrender to an evil principle of Judenrein. Because the Palestinians made a contractual deal virtually impossible and told the Israelis, in effect, to get out without any arrangements, this does not excuse the moral lapse. I myself participated in that lapse in supporting the total withdrawal. In retrospect, it was wrong to say, “To hell with you, we’re leaving.” At the same time, the political practices that are moral must be as realistic as they are idealistic. Escape from responsibility will not allow a party to achieve freedom. It is a very tough balancing act.

How does one retain responsibility while surrendering authority to the Other and granting the Other the right to empower itself? That is the task, not a premise. That is the goal of a peace agreement, not the foundation for one. How does one create and continue to engage in a positive sum game wherein there is both true mutual recognition and where the power of the Other is allowed to grow as a release and expression of the energy of a people while ensuring that this energy is not a threat but a partner, a complement rather than an antagonist. Much easier said that done. That is why the task of peace is so difficult. But it will never be made easier with the intervention of external superegos which remove the ethical and political responsibilities from the parties themselves to forge a peace. And each party must recognize its own shortcomings in such a quest.

That is what is fundamentally wrong with Resolution 2334. It attempts to pre-empt that discussion. It raises the status of the Palestinians quite justly, but only by demonizing and derogating Jewish Israelis and their position. Not only are realities ignored, not only are established principles torturously arrived at set aside, but the supporters of the Resolution – quite aside from the myriad of deficiencies – have surrendered to the belief that external parties must not only be helpful to the parties, but weigh in on the debate so that in terms of power, the weight clearly still remains with the Jewish Israelis that cannot be offset by all the abstract moral weight and economic clout put on the other side of the scale.

When that is done in bad faith, when that is done without loving-kindness, when that is done in the name of helping the so-called underdog, it is done without respect of the power and recognition the Palestinians truly deserve as a self-governing people responsible for who they are and what they want to become. It is done by ignoring the authoritarian institutions and corruption which impede their self-development. It is done by ignoring the long strides Palestinians have made in managing their own security. And it is certainly done by ignoring the realities of Jewish Israel and denigrating its motives and its position.

Given these parameters, it is why the conclusions of the Paris Peace Conference are so superior to those of Resolution 2334. All states, including that of Israel, should recognize Palestine as an aspiring state. That is what Palestinians want. That is what they should have. That is what only a minority of Jewish Israelis let alone a minority of all Israelis want to prevent. The majority of Jewish Israelis accept the goal of creating a Palestinian state side-by-side Israel.

Let me offer a concrete example. If an outsider determines in advance that Jerusalem is Palestinian territory, a determination that was never previously made in either an agreement between the parties or even by an authoritative international body, that is an illegitimate move. If a country wishes to do so in recognition of realities that do not pre-empt the discussion – such a moving an embassy to West Jerusalem – that may be an imprudent act given the timing, but it is not an undercutting action. One can even argue such an act is needed to make a statement about reality.

That is why the Paris Peace Conference was far superior to the UNSC Resolution 2334 even as it endorsed that Resolution, but did so in a way that offered some re-balancing. It was an influence conference, not a peace conference. Neither of the disputants were represented or there. The participants reaffirmed their support “for a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The conference endorsed negotiations between the parties as “the only way” to achieve enduring peace while recognizing that current trends (on both sides) on the ground, not only the expansion of settlements but “continued acts of violence,” impede progress towards peace. The conference endorsed “meaningful, direct negotiations.”

Resolution 242 was not superseded by another UN resolution, though all UN resolutions were acknowledged. Instead, the conference endorsed a negotiated two-State solution that would meet the legitimate aspirations of both parties for both sovereignty and security “and resolve all permanent status issues on the basis of UNSC Res. 242 and 338.” If a framework was helpful in such negotiations, the Conference tipped its hat to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Palestinians as well as Israelis were urged to be governed by international humanitarian and human rights law. Instead of using international humanitarian law as a club, let alone the threat of economic coercion, the participants expressed a readiness to offer its support where needed, including economic aid and economic incentives as positive inducements.

One item emphasized was an offer to facilitate civil society dialogue between the two parties in contention. The focus was not on external pressures, but on strengthening civil society and direct dialogue between and among citizens from both sides. The conference was clear in its strictures against steps that would prejudge the outcome of negotiations on final status issues – borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees. Though Netanyahu could wave away the results of the Paris Peace Conference as irrelevant and futile, and the Palestinians could welcome the conclusion by ignoring the strictures against their own positions and practices, reassurance came for me from a surprising quarter. Though he did not express any regret for not vetoing Res. 2334, John Kerry reassured Netanyahu that there would be no further UN Resolutions before Trump took over and no international action following from the Peace Conference. The timing of the conference and the results seem more intended to send a message to Donald Trump rather than to either Abbas or Netanyahu.

As I interpreted the Peace Conference, it went some way to offset the destructive elements of UNSC 2334, but the concluding statement lacked the legal authority of the UN. There were also other efforts on the ground that proved to be more promising and could serve as a precedent for partial deals rather than a comprehensive one. After six years of negotiations, a concrete deal was made on sharing water resources between Israel and the West Bank, including of a Joint Water Committee to work out the details of implementation.

However, on the international stage, the fallout from Resolution 2334 inviting unilateral actions on the international stage can be very destructive of efforts to implement a peace deal. I will deal with those consequences in my next blog.