Dreaming and Empathy

Dreaming and Empathy

by

Howard Adelman

One of the greatest speeches ever offered Americans, in fact, one of the greatest examples of soaring rhetoric ever, was that of Martin Luther King, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on 23 August 1963 over a half century ago. It was titled, “I have a dream.” It was a call to make America great again – not great in power, not great in wealth, but great in making reality match ideal aspirations.

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride. From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

If America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

It is a dream that speaks to us today because Martin Luther King envisioned that one day the voters of Alabama would elect a man like Doug Jones who, in a deep red state, would beat Roy Moore, a racist, a hater of homosexuals and Muslims alike, a despicable man found guilty twice of flouting the constitution as a judge but never prosecuted for his alleged pursuit of nubile teenagers.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

It was and remains one of the great speeches of history about noble dreams.

In this week’s parshat, the dream being interpreted is not a noble one, but one dreamt by a noble, one dreamt by the great Pharaoh of Egypt himself. In Genesis 41, in fact, he is recorded as having had two dreams.

After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows, attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke.And he fell asleep and dreamed a second time. And behold, seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. And behold, after them sprouted seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven plump, full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and behold, it was a dream.

As Joseph uniquely interpreted that dream, it was about the seven fat years to come that would be eaten up by the following seven years of famine and shortages. It was an economic dream about the future. And it was a dream that offered Joseph the opportunity to play on that forecast to construct a national policy of savings and subsequent distribution that would enhance the reputation of Pharaoh far and wide, for the surplus saved would be shared broadly to help even non-Egyptians. A dream by a noble was translated into a noble dream.

In the writings of Cicero, also one of the great rhetoricians of history, in his essay “On the Good Life,” he told the story of Scipio the Younger who had a dream that Scipio the Elder had visited him from the nether or spirit world. The Elder told the Younger of his achievements, of how he had made Rome a great power, of how he had made the people of Carthage submit to Rome. But now the people of Carthage are becoming a noisy mob. Now they are protesting Rome’s rule. Now once again they are raising the conflicts of old, threatening the peace and challenging the imperial power.

Carthage is the city, Scipio the Elder urges, that the Younger must attack, that you must destroy. This is the city the destruction of which will turn you from an ordinary soldier to a great leader who can then use the victory two years later to become consul. Scipio the Elder predicts that this will lead to even greater accomplishments, the conquest and destruction of other cities in revolt and, most importantly, bringing order and discipline back to the rule of Rome itself which, because of Scipio the Elder’s own grandchildren, has become a place of licentiousness, anarchy and disorder.

Scipio the Younger’s dream is a vision of imperial might and power. It is a dream in which the sun is depicted as the ruler of all. There is only one sun and one ruler. And in his dream, Scipio hears the music of the spheres to which most people are deaf. He hears about the harmony promised by the spirit world, for the body is mortal, the flesh is weak, and the true self is the inner self, the spirit inside, the self-recognition that he, Scipio the Younger, is truly a god impelled by an inner and truer spirit, by an immortal soul within a mortal body, born to exercise the rule of the eternal god, rule that demands unquestioning obedience.

Why is Martin Luther’s dream, that is also attuned to the music of the spheres in the eternal spiritual world, about human equality, about freedom, about respecting the dignity of all, whereas Scipio the Younger’s dream is about harmony imposed from above by a powerful imperial ruler that quashes those who would question that power? Plato in the Phaedrus offers an answer. For Scipio the Younger’s dream was of raising earth to heaven while that of Martin Luther King was of bringing heaven down to earth.

Plato in his dialogue, Phaedrus, has a striking image, an allegory about the life of the soul, of what Jews call the nefesh. It is a story of a charioteer and who has harnessed and is driving forward as he directs two horses, one an unmanageable steed of passion in the quest for personal satisfaction and the other a horse of courage which, unlike the wild horse to which it is tethered, can listen and be guided by the voice of reason, of logos. The horse of courage is beautiful in shape with the highest moral qualities of virtue. The wild horse is ugly and foul. In the horse of courage, the wings of the angels, of the horse as the messenger of the gods, in particular, of Zeus, grow in strength and lift up the weight of the world to the heavens where the gods live. In the ugly horse of unbridled passion, the wings shrink and disappear. The bad horse will always drag the charioteer back to earth.

What is most notable about the Pharaoh’s dream, in contrast, is that, though it is a dream by a noble, though it is a dream by one who takes himself and is taken to be a sun god, it is such an earthly dream, about cows without wings, not horses, about stalks of wheat and not even animals. In the Socratic world, only intelligence grasped by logos and having no material appearance captures the character of the heavens. However, Martin Luther’s dream takes place in technicolour, for it is not just a vision about black and white lying down together in the same field, but of people of all colours in between, of people symbolized by Joseph’s famous multi-coloured coat.

The irony in Plato is that the advocate of these militaristic virtues of strength and courage and nobility was himself a Harvey Weinstein, said to be “unprepossessing to the point of grotesqueness.” Socrates had a flat nose rather than a bulbous one, protruding eyes and walked very awkwardly, a complete contrast to Joseph who was a man of beautiful shape, though having a foul mouth full of malicious gossip, especially about his brothers. Joseph was not only a tattle tale; he maligned his brothers and told of their so-called dirty deeds.

If Socrates had an “inner voice” that told him what was true and what was not, Pharaoh had a vision of the outer world that told him about how the world, how the future, would unfold. However, he could not interpret nor execute the message of his own dreams. Whereas the main concern of Socrates was the soul’s immortality, Joseph’s mission becomes serving the mortality of the body and ensuring that there is enough to eat and drink for all. Through logos, in the worship of Socratic reasoning, wisdom comes through purification of thoughts, through clarification of words and their meanings. Joseph’s wisdom comes from hermeneutics, the ability to interpret visions and dreams. For Socrates, in the last hours of his life in the Phaedrus, is more than ever preoccupied with the soul’s immortality and a framework whereby man is but a chattel of the gods destined if he is great to be enslaved to a divine vision.

The parallels and differences are striking. Socrates’ final days are spent in prison in dialogue with his fellow philosophers. Joseph had been cast into a pit, sold into slavery and ended up in prison on false charges only to be rescued because of his abilities to interpret dreams. He rises to the highest office in the land, the effective vizier of the sun-god, the Pharaoh. My colleague at York, the estimable specialist in Greek philosophy, Gerald Naddaf, translated a book by Luc Brisson called, Plato the Myth Maker. Myth and narrative was, for Plato, not up to the standards of logos, in which conclusions are derived by reason and defended by argument. The “truths” of myths, on the other hand, were not falsifiable before the high judge of reason. But Joseph’s visions were verified by the course of human history, as were Martin Luther King’s.

A myth, a dream, is not false news. Mythos, the term in Greek, is a word that takes the form of advice and is something one says rather than something one writes. It is neither true nor false, real or fake. From Xenophanes on, the purpose of Greek philosophy, of using logos, was to denounce the myths of Homer and Hesiod of having any validity. Plato brought mythos back into philosophy as a useful illustrative device. However, in the Torah, narrative, myth, dreams – the whole paraphernalia of the text – cries out; narrative is superior in allowing one to listen to the harmony of the spheres. But what is that harmony? Is it that of the war lover, that of the insistence on a unified and imperial command structure, or that of disorder, of disharmony in the family and in political life altogether?

In the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh, we see that truth can be envisioned and not simply argued about and verified. But that truth needs an interpreter. However, what is more important is to attend to, not the skills of Joseph as an interpreter, but the wisdom of Pharaoh in using Joseph, not only as his interpreter, but as his vizier to carry out that vision. And it is not the vision of a sun god, of an imperial ruler, but the dream of a man who sees the world, not as it is, but as it is becoming, who sees his role as protecting and feeding his subjects and not of using them, like Scipio, both father and son, to achieve immortal glory. Mythos for both the Pharaoh and Joseph has both credulity and historical value that the monochromatic world of logos lacks. Memory and recollection of dreams and their interpretation offers the route to a better future. Instead of logos divorced from the oral tradition, a text that is wedded to oral memory is more significant, for it passes on the wisdom of the ages from generation to generation, from dor to dor, מדור לדור.

If he had been a man of prejudice, Pharaoh could have dismissed a dandy and possibly a gay man serving as his dream interpreter. Certainly, if he had been a Roman statesman, he might have freed his slave and even done business with him, but it highly unlikely that he would have appointed a former slave, his vizier. Finally, Pharaoh would not have authorized a program of economic distribution to protect the lives of all. In Plato’s Phaedrus, the Egyptian Pharaoh criticizes the God, Theuth, the inventor of writing, by arguing that, “writing is not a recipe for memory and wisdom” but for forgetfulness and the appearance of wisdom. With computers, we do not need to learn to spell even. With cell phones, we no longer need to remember phone numbers. Thought and discourse become separated from memory.

The Torah always keeps the two married. Memories of dreams in particular provide an inestimable source of wisdom. It is not as if material wealth frees one up to have time to dream, but that dreams reveal the necessity of husbanding one’s wealth and then redistributing it for the benefit of all others, for the common good rather than for the glory of the ruler and conqueror.

This suggests that there is an even deeper meaning to the story. The Pharaoh not only employs a lowly Hebrew and former slave to interpret his dreams, he turns him into the manager of the rule of the people and the land. He makes him his economic czar. The Pharaoh recognizes each person for their merit and does not pre-judge them based on class or ethnic origin. He does so based on what the Scottish philosophers of the Enlightenment – Lord Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume and Adam Smith – called a philosophy of sentiment, not a sentimental philosophy, a philosophy of sympathy and empathy for the other. In the very first sentence of Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments, sympathy is defined as follows:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”

Even Donald Trump is evidently not entirely bereft of an ounce of moral sympathy. It is that sixth sense, that the Pharaoh had in spades, that provides for the recognition of the virtues and merits of all others, for the opportunities of the many and for the protection of all who are in need. Donald Trump must have that ounce, because that is a premise of sentiment, but he sure does his best to hide it and prove he is bankrupt when it comes to morality.

The Pharaoh is the hero of the story for he exemplifies the nature of sentiment and the manifestations of altruism. Sympathy is innate in us all. The Scipios of this world do their best to repress that sentiment within themselves as they repress others and try to establish a rule of order and harmony through military oppression based on their personal vision rather than on what unites all of humanity. For sympathy to express itself, a change in our way of life may arise to challenge us – an environment challenge for example. With sympathy we rise to empathy and enter into an ability to re-enact and understand the suffering of others, to put ourselves in the other’s shoes. It was Pharaoh who had the dream, who translated Joseph’s interpretation into a vision of practical morality and hired Joseph to implement it, a man who thus far, whatever his external virtues, had not hereto exhibited much empathy for others.

May the song of humanity be with us.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

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.

 

Learning the Techniques of Persuasion

Learning the Techniques of Persuasion

by

Howard Adelman

Against a background of coal miners in hard hats, Donald Trump signed a measure a week ago that rolled back a last-minute Obama regulation restricting coal mines from dumping debris into nearby streams. Patricia Nana, a Cameroonian-American, insisted that, “If he hadn’t gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work. I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything – you could see how happy they were.” Pictures are worth a thousand words, they say. The reality: the regulation would have cost very few jobs that would more than be compensated by new jobs created through the clean-up of the streams.

The Washington Post on 21 February 2017 reported this as “an example of the frequent distance between Trump’s rhetoric, which many of his supporters wholeheartedly believe, and verifiable facts.” These supporters at a Trump rally in Florida received their news regularly from Fox News and right-wing radio. Those interviewed were aware of what they read and what they saw, but knew virtually nothing about topics embarrassing to the president, such as the recent resignation of Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, because he lied to the Vice-President. If they knew that, they knew nothing of the broader charge, that he spoke inappropriately, frequently and possibly illegally about lifting the sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, before Trump was even president. Some did not even know that Flynn had resigned and had been replaced by Lt. General H.R. McMaster.

One cannot win an effort at persuasion unless one has access to the other side. Even then, what is said will be filtered through a set of beliefs largely resistant to the information and arguments being put forth. And we are not speaking of Donald Trump himself or his immediate acolytes. We are talking about the Trumpists, the true believers in his entourage who voted for him and would vote for him again even after a month of chaos and mismanagement.

Do not attempt to practice the arts of persuasion on Donald Trump, on his acolytes or on the true believers that are his followers. There are plenty of others who cast ballots for Donald Trump who do not approach issues with a pre-formed mindblindness. The first rule: select your targets who may possibly be open to listening to the case you wish to bring. But such a rule creates its own problems. Do we end up only talking to those who share our bubble? Do we retreat to our “safe spaces”? Does that reinforce intolerance and even deeper misunderstandings, especially with the almost total breakdown in the consensus, led by the president, in respecting the media and in engaging in civil discourse? There is no longer even a consensus on the civility expected of a president.

Even when dealing with those more malleable than the ardent Trump supporter, there is a problem in conducting discourse within the larger climate of fear and suspicion. In his Florida rally, Donald Trump may have stoked that fear by referring to a non-existent event in Sweden the night before, but what he did see and hear was an author, Ami Horowitz, who claimed that statistics on rape and violent crime in Sweden had increased since the large influx of foreigners in 2015. Don Lemon on his CNN show interviewed the author and challenged both his misuse of statistics and his conclusions, but without another expert present, the interview disintegrated into the interviewee insisting that what he claimed was true while Lemon kept offering evidence and arguments for its false representation of the situation in Sweden.

A quick subsequent review of some authoritative evidence from Sweden indicated that Don Lemon was much more accurate than his guest and supposed expert in representing rape and violent crime rates in Sweden. What had been offered was hyperbole and distortion by pointing to a one year spike and ignoring the overall pattern of declining rates of violence and sexual assault. Even when there were outstanding examples of violence, as there was two evenings ago, the riots looked tame compared to those that have occurred frequently in American cities. And they are much rarer, one about every second year. In these cases, Middle Eastern refugees were involved.

But there was no rape. There was no violence – though one police officer was slightly injured. When there is violence, the perpetrators were much more likely to be right-wing extremists than immigrants. Swedes seem to know this and a majority continue to support the intake of refugees and migrants. Nevertheless, Trumpists insist that there is a media conspiracy to cover up the incidents of rape and violence in Sweden.

However, even if we have some glimpse of what we face in the world of persuasion, how can we use our rational and communicative skills to best effect? When we try to persuade another, do we first attempt to establish the facts or, as the ancient Sophists did, focus on arête or virtue, on values of the highest order – excellence in other words? If the latter, what rhetorical and philosophic techniques are required? Or do we set aside argument and discourse altogether and instead opt for authenticity, opt for giving witness to what you believe to be true as opposed to the claims of the Other.

Mel Gibson’s totally unsubtle and sometimes saccharine Hacksaw Ridge, with the most gruesome and graphic scenes of the maelstrom of war I have ever seen, tells the “true” story of a conscientious objector, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), as the true believer and saint-like figure who served as a U.S. medic in the war against the Japanese in Okinawa. He won the highest award for bravery, the U.S. Medal of Honor. Doss volunteered to serve, but given his faith (he was a Seventh Day Adventist) and promise to God, he would not bear arms. In Gibson’s interpretation, this superhero combined an open-hearted approach to life with steely determination to defend his beliefs.

Some of his fellow soldiers viewed that as cowardice and bullied and beat him. His commanding officers treated his behaviour as disobedience and undertook an effort to have him court martialled. But through witnessing to his faith, through his unqualified brave actions in battle, he proved them all wrong. He did not use argument to defend his case, but he did need an order from a superior officer in Washington that conscientious objectors serving as medics need not bear arms. But most of all, he needed to prove they were wrong and more than did so in repeated acts of outstanding bravery in rescuing his fellow soldiers.

There are other ways to win arguments than with words and arguments. There are also other ways to lose arguments regardless of one’s skill with words and reason. Does the payment of money in exchange for such teaching these skills corrupt the process as Socrates proclaimed as he sought to establish the pursuit of Truth, Wisdom and Courage as the superior values for a warrior and aristocratic class? After all, Trumpists and anti-Trumpists often insist that supporters or opponents respectively are being paid to be there.  And senior executives of companies may indirectly be paid for touting the Trump presidency when they attend his “job” rallies because the company benefits from the positive publicity and the president promoting their products and their commitment to America. It is not they who have to pay off the president but the president who may be paying them off for being touts for himself.

Modern universities, though periodically invaded by corruption, have overwhelmingly proved the falsity of Socrates’ claims and shown that guaranteed wages and the principle of academic freedom have overwhelmingly protected the independence of scholars and scientists in both their teaching and research functions. By and large, responsible media outlets, and even irresponsible ones, have largely succeeded in drawing a line between the sources of their ad revenues and their news and editorial content. It should not be presumed in advance that material influences trump intellectual ones.

We have also learned that, contrary to Socrates, knowledge is not a single craft, but a multiplicity of tasks each with its own specialized vocabulary, techniques, objects of study and standards for assessing results. There is no singular path to knowledge. There is not even a singular Truth with a capital “T.” There is a difference between being a sage and being a scholar or research scientist. Most of the latter are not sages, as much as they may contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

In the ancient Greek world of Socrates, rhetorical skills were valued more than parsing arguments and evidence in a written work or stringing together depictions in a coherent way in a story or a novel. The latter was exemplified in the movie, Genius, the biopic of renowned Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins (Colin Firth), and his exuberant unboundaried novelist, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River were, arguably, both made into coherent, readable and popular novels because of the concise effort of editing the logorrheic outpouring of the poetic prose of the American Walt Whitman of the twentieth century. In a book culture, arguments and evidence in science and scholarship, or narrative plots, themes and characterization in fiction, must be coherent to facilitate communication.

This is not the case where alternatives to persuasion are used. Incoherence, boring and meaningless repetition of phrases, body language and snorts or their equivalents in tweets, may be used to confound coherence and disparage criteria such as truth and consistency. When the message requires audience fragmentation, traditional and legacy media with standards of correspondence to facts and coherence in presentation must be regarded as the enemy to be undermined and debilitated. Following Donald Trump’s rant as an excuse for a news conference last week (16 February 2017), in a tweet the next day, he dubbed the news media “the enemy of the American people.” In the original version, he wrote: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK!” Given the grammar and style, he should have written sic! The illogic was best exemplified when he dubbed the leaks about his election campaign’s links to Russians authentic, but the reporting of those leaks, “fake news.”

We have four different groups in contention, however, not two. There are the modern scholars and scientists, journalists and writers who, like the ancient Sophists, adhere to standards of reasoning and establishing evidence, to techniques of differentiating truth from falsehood. In the other corner are the modern cynics, the dogged or dog-like (κυνικός – kynikos) celebrators of fame and fortune, of strength and power. Modern cynics are the very opposite of their Athenian predecessors – Antisthenes and Diogenes made famous in Plato’s dialogues. The latter became ideologues who insisted in turning the rigour and discipline of argument into an ascetic life style. Trump and his followers have replaced rigour and discipline with incoherence and rants.

The modern version of ancient cynicism are evangelicals with their narrow adherence to ideology. Paradoxically, they unite with modern cynics because both disparage rigour in thought and use of language. The two groups are united in a single camp because of their opposition to the use of reason and reflection, attention to facts and follies, as a method for establishing truth. For contemporary cynics as ideologues as well as cynical inversions of those ancient practitioners, Truth is either revealed or it is whatever I believe. It is not something to be pursued.

In addition to the Sophists, there is a fourth group. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. From very different perspectives, they were philosophers. Like the ancient cynics and their modern evangelical ideologues, they believed in Truth with a capital “T”. Like the sophists, they believed Truth, along with the virtue of Justice, could be established by adherence to the principles of reason, of consistency in argument, of correspondence with facts and of coherence in weaving it altogether. Unlike the sophists who revered the techniques of rationality and made no claims about an ultimate revelation, these philosophers believed that they could reveal that Truth and uncover the principles of Justice through reason alone.

The partnership of sceptical sophists and rational philosophers, Camp A, opposed the members of Camp B, the union of believers in sincerity and goodness of human motives and actions (evangelical ideologues) with the contemporary cynics of disbelief and insincerity who regard human motives and actions to be fundamentally base. Linking the evangelical ideologues and the contemporary cynics are the economic ideologues who believe human motives are strictly self-interested, but, like the evangelical ideologues, have constructed an ideology, materialistic rather than value-based, indifferent to facts and arguments that predetermine how the economic order is to be constructed.

The question then is when there are no rules of discourse, when frameworks trump dialogue, how do the members of Camp A persuade those who belong to Camp B? The members of both camps speak the same language with the same grammatical rules, but the rules of logic and the rules of falsification differ dramatically. They are not shared. At least by the core members of one camp versus those of another. That is where one finds an opening in the gaps between the core and the periphery and in the divisions among the sub-groups in Camp B. Before one can take advantage of those openings, it is necessary to establish common grounds for Camp A.

In the next blog, I inquire into what we can learn from ancient Greeks caught up with the question of persuasion.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Donald Trump’s America

Donald Trump’s America

by

Howard Adelman

There is an extreme irony in watching Barack Obama leave power and be succeeded by The Donald, who has graduated from being Trump Two Two to being Trump Three Three Three. His self-deceit is so great that he must now reassure himself by repeating his messages no longer just twice, but three times. Trump won the presidency in good part by appealing to identity politics, not the identity politics of minorities who feel discriminated against, but the identity politics of a majority at the cusp of becoming a minority at the same time as their sense of personal identity and identification with the major direction of their nation dissolved before their very eyes. Trump did produce a revolution. He turned the heads of those who were drowning in nostalgia from looking at the receding past to looking for a chimera in the future. At the same time, he made those who strived to bring about a new future, in the words of Michael Brenner, look backwards for comfort and consolation. In terms of nostalgia, the positions of the regressives and the progressives have been inverted.

After Election Day, President Barack Obama expressed the hope that once Donald Trump became President, he would moderate his behaviour. Hope can curse one with mindblindness. But Trump proves again and again that he is deeply ethically challenged with an, as yet, inexplicable admiration for the authoritarian, Vladimir Putin. A New Yorker columnist quipped that the Donald was an advocate of “Peronism on the Potomac” as well as being a “xenophobic populist.” He has appointed cabinet members demonstrably unqualified for their positions – Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, a critic of public education and an ignorant one at that; Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier charged with running the Environmental Protection Agency; Steven Mnuchin, one of five Goldman Sachs alumni appointed by Trump to the government coming from a company he once pointed to as a major source of the swamp in Washington. He repeatedly demonstrates that he is inexperienced, irrational, unstable, thin skinned, but with a deep conviction that he knows something better than anyone else, yet he shows little interest in reading or in the process of policy formation. And he often appears unhinged, as when he appeared before the American intelligence community yesterday. More and more, he presents himself as a clear and present danger to democratic government. ­

In yesterday’s Torah study group, as the rabbi pointed out, we had a rare confluence when the text being studied directly spoke to the contemporary situation, so I have an opportunity to marry biblical commentary to contemporary politics. The verse reads as follows:

וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8)

When the text reads, “a new king,” does it mean just a new person taking the throne of Egypt (Trump as a democratically elected monarch) or does it mean a king at the beginning of a new line of succession, neither Democrat or Republican at heart? Or perhaps it means a new kind of king. Or all three! In the biblical text, a new line of succession is at least suggested because of the omission of any reference to forebears. After all, a king’s legitimacy depended in good part on a long inheritance line. Most commentators suggest that what took place was a dynastic change, and, further, and even more importantly, a change that discarded old patterns of behaviour and initiated new and even revolutionary ones.

This is also suggested by the way the new Egyptian king took power. He arose over Egypt – עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם. It is one thing to rule over Egypt. It is quite another to rise to power “over” Egypt, which suggests a palace coup or a revolt. Third, one manifestation of this generic change is what the king does with his power. How does he spend the government treasury – on pyramids? Or on public works or on the military? This new king spent the Egyptian treasury on the military and used the Hebrews as slaves to build new cities for stores or supplies, miskenoth –מִסְכְּנוֹת֙.

וַיִּ֜בֶן עָרֵ֤י מִסְכְּנוֹת֙ לְפַרְעֹ֔ה אֶת־פִּתֹ֖ם וְאֶת־ רַעַמְסֵֽס: And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Ramses. (Exodus 1:11)

See also 1 Kings 9:19; 2 Chronicles 8:4, 8:6, 16:4 and 17:12. The last makes clear that a store “city” is a fortress.

There is a fourth factor defining the new character of a ruler – who the ruler points to as the enemies of the state. In this case, the text is explicitly clear. It is the Israelites who are defined not only as the Other, but the proliferating Other, the threatening Other, the Other which can act as a Fifth Column for Egypt’s external enemies. However, the major emphasis is a fifth factor. This king “knew not Joseph.” It could simply mean that the new king had not been acquainted with Egyptian history and with Joseph’s role in that history. Not a very plausible conclusion since the generation of Joseph had just died off.

There is a much more plausible account that can connect the different strands of legitimization together. Joseph was not only a Vizier who saved Egypt through a period of famine by developing a system for collecting and storing food in the good times and then a system for distributing that food in the bad times. But he did something else as well. First, he operated a welfare state collecting the wealth of society so that all could be fed. He then exchanged bread for the livestock of the inhabitants. (Genesis :47:17) The people lost their flocks and their herds. Then when the people ran out of animals, they exchanged their land for food. (47:19) Further, they then worked the land in return for a percentage of the produce giving Pharaoh a fifth of everything they produced. 20% of gross sales, not just 20% of profits went to Pharaoh. Joseph had either converted a country of freeholders into a feudal state or converted a decentralized feudal country into a centralized collectivist economy. Further, he moved the people into cities and lauded old Jewish values which gave priority to the city, to civilization, but, in the process, probably created a mass of discontented Egyptians who likely lived just above the poverty line in an alien environment they detested. They longed for the old Egypt rooted in the banks of the Nile where rituals were attuned with the annual floods.

It is hard to believe that the new king would not know what Joseph had done. It is far more likely that the new pharaoh (initially just a king) knew precisely what Joseph had done and had rallied the ex-Egyptian herders and shepherds and landowners to overthrow the old dynasty precisely because of resentment over their new status as serfs or urbanized poor. What then could “he knew not Joseph” mean? At the very least, it meant that the new king of Egypt created a competing narrative to the one in which Joseph saved Egypt, saved the state, saved the establishment in power, but, in the new version, did so for the benefit of those in power and at the cost of the traditional way of life of the Egyptians. In the new version, Joseph and his tribe could be blamed for destroying the old social order. Since they were foreigners, they were doubly suspect.

With the background of the biblical text, look more closely at Trump’s inaugural speech. Instead of a record and narrative of survival from the threat of drought, (from the Great Recession of 2008), Trump describes a state of carnage. Not in 2007, but in 2017, ten years later. And he began, not by acknowledging traditions, not by acknowledging past accomplishments, not even by pointing to the constitution of the United States as the source of legitimation for a new ruler. “The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans,” not to the constitution or even the flag.

The expression, “We the people,” is taken to its populist extreme. “We, the citizens of America, are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people.” That promise was betrayed, not just by the previous Democratic regime, but by Republicans as well. These Washington politicians all betrayed their country and allowed it to fall into decay, into crime, into impoverishment of a whole swath of Americans. The promise, the covenant with the people of America, had been broken. It is time to restore power to the people preached Donald Trump.

As Trump said, inauguration day did not just mean the peaceful transition from one governing group to another. “We are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.” Can you not just hear the new king of Egypt standing on the balcony of his palace and asserting that for too long, a small group in Thebes reaped the rewards while the people bore the costs, bore the burdens. “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.” The jobs left and the factories closed. The animal herds disappeared and you the people were forced to work the land, no longer for yourselves, but to enrich those in power with the taxes imposed upon you.

“Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.” Trump pronounced a new beginning. “All change starts right here and right now.” This is not 2017 of the Common Era, but year 1 of the Trump Era, “the likes of which the world has never seen before.” “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” (my italics) That is Trump Two Two speaking in his inaugural address. When he says only America, he means only me, for he sees himself as the embodiment of the American spirit. Unfortunately, in the history of politics, the phenomenon of demagoguery has been seen too often before. “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

This is precisely the definition of a demagogue, “a leader championing the cause of the common people,” and doing so by distortions and outright lies, using false claims and even falser promises. One does not have to refer to Adolph Hitler and his promise to make Germany a great world power or Benito Mussolini’s promise to return Italy to the great and glorious days of the Roman Empire. Demagoguery is as much part of American tradition as the American constitution. Think of Huey Long, Governor of Louisiana in the 1930s, Theodore Bilbo, twice Governor of Mississippi and later a U.S. Senator (“Listen Mr. Bilbo, listen to me, I’ll give you a lesson in history” – a camp song I learned as a kid), Father Coughlin with his radio sermons in the dirty thirties, Senator Joseph McCarthy in the fifties. The bogey men may shift, but the elites are usually controlled by and/or in service to an unworthy and threatening group –  Blacks, Jews, Reds. The enemy shifts and may be Mexicans and Muslims, but the construction of an enemy alien never does. James Fenimore Cooper, in his 1838 essay “On Demagogues,” recognized the danger rooted in the deep populist strain of American politics. “The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting (my italics) a deep devotion to the interests of the people.”

The elements are always the same. The enemy is an elite and the demagogue opposes the elite in the name of the people with whom he establishes a visceral rather than cognitive connection rooted in agreements over policies. A demagogue connects to the people by appealing to their fears and hatreds and by pointing to the dreams and hopes that they once had and claims that they had been dashed by a powerful cabal. The new deliverer is ostensibly opposed both to that elite and the collectivities it serves. But the motivation is always the same – the narcissistic urges of all demagogues, their own inflated sense of self, their own gargantuan ambitions, and their disrespect for the norms of truth, the norms of decency, the norms of conduct and, in the end, the norms established by the rule of law.  Donald Trump is a demagogue, not only because he is the best expression of all these characteristics, but because he even disdains his own party as an institution through which he connects with the people. His connection is direct. “What truly matters is not which party controls government, but whether the government is controlled by the people.”

It is one thing in a democracy to assert that a government must be responsible to and for the people and be accountable to them. It is quite another to (falsely) claim that government is controlled by the people. It is not. It never has been. It never will be. And demagogues are the only ones who utter such a blatant lie. Plato declared that any demagogue once he gains power cannot help but drift towards tyranny. Aristotle insisted that the most dangerous form of government was one in which the people and not the law have supreme power, a false claim always made by demagogues to seize power.

The trajectory is horrific to watch. Traditions and norms that took centuries to build are destroyed in only a few years. As the opposition takes to the streets in larger and larger numbers, the new “leader” insists that order demands a sacrifice of a degree of freedom. Rule can only be exercised with a strong hand. And Trump has openly stated that he admires “order and strength” – and military parades. But, as Polybius once pointed out, the decay had set in much earlier, for without that decay, a demagogue could not have achieved power in the first place. But whatever the preparation, the demagogic storm seems to come out of the blue.  Like Cleon, who brought Athenian democracy to its knees, Donald Trump has entered the fray as a political tsunami. And what he says means precisely the opposite.

“We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” Translation – I am the only one that can take you to the promised land. “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” And attendees at the inaugural time and again applauded these words of pure demagoguery.

But the proof text came in one sentence, not the plethora of lies that rewrote history and misrepresented America’s past accomplishments and current success, though these seemed to be the preoccupation of most of the media. Donald Trump said, “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” The Bible says no such thing. It is a tale of divisions. And there are divisions in interpreting those divisions. Take the text with which we started.

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The instant response of Jews in both the ancient and the modern world has been to pray for the welfare of the government of whatever country Jews lived in, even when the leadership of that country would turn out to be bad for the Jews as well as everyone else. In every prayer book of whatever denomination and whatever country, the Jews express loyalty to the country in which they live through a prayer, most often not in Hebrew, but in the language of that country.

When the new king arose over Egypt, one can imagine the Israelites praying for the new government, asking everyone to give him a chance and let him prove himself. But how they said it, what they said and why they said it varied. Jeremiah (29:4-7), who offered perhaps the first advice to pray for the welfare of the existing government, advised, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” But the advice was strictly qualified. “Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie.”

Rabbi Chanina bar Chama of Babylon, one of the great Talmudic sages and interpreters of the Mishna who also, with Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, went in person to pledge loyalty to the Roman government in Caesarea, in his version of the prayer for the welfare of the government, included a Hobbesian reason: “if not for its fear, a person would swallow his fellow live.” Without government, all would be anarchy and daily life would be a tooth-and-claw existence. This was the complement to the false prophet warning, the fear of the mob, of the populace, for without government (good or bad) and order, all would be chaos.

If Jeremiah feared false prophets as leaders, if he feared demagogues, and Chanina feared the irrationality of the masses, other prayers were far more circumspect, perhaps because they feared the wrath of the government turning against them. The fears are not explicitly expressed, but quotes are lifted from psalms which seem benign enough until you read the quote in the full context of the whole psalm. The allusion to the fears is located in those psalms rather than in the prayers themselves.

Many contemporary prayers for the welfare of the state leave out explicitly or even by implication any reference to fears. I would guess that just before the Inquisition, Jews did so as well. The prayer for the welfare of the government is unabashed. This is true of our prayer book in our synagogue which was our rabbi’s tweak of the older prayer in the siddur, The Gates of Prayer (1975). In Siddur Pirchei Kodesh (2011), our current Holy Blossom Temple Reform prayer book (in the U.S. Reform movement, Mishkan T’filah, 2007), the prayer for the welfare of the country is offered without either an allusion to or certainly any expression and recognition of a danger. Like most American prayers (our rabbi is from Chicago), the prayer is usually of the flavour that asks God to make those leaders the best that they can be. There is no expression that they may turn out to be the worst possible.

Should we pray for Donald Trump and his government, pray that God make him and his government the best that it can be? Or do we recognize the real dangers and pray for the collapse of that government sooner rather than later given its obvious inherent dangers?

I think readers know where I stand.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman