Sex and the Single Man

We suspected it all along. But we are approaching certainty. Donald Trump will be impeached, even though he attacked Syria ostensibly to destroy some of the capacity of an evil regime which sacrifices its own nationals with chemical weapons in contravention of international treaties and the rules of war. Trump, reading from two prompters, gave his finest presidential speech ever in explaining what the U.S. and its allies were doing in their missile attack on Syria and why. Pat Robertson, the evangelical preacher, even interpreted Trump’s habit of sniffing while he reads a speech to be a sign that he was breathing in the breath of the Holy Spirit. However, the speech stank from insincerity. By sometime next year, if not earlier, Mike Pence will become president of the United States.

A reader of my blog sent me a very insightful article by Meghan O’Gieblyn in the May issue of Harpers Magazine called: “Exiled: Mike Pence and the evangelical fantasy of persecution.” The article not only paints a picture of the character of Pence’s Christian beliefs, but also provides insight into how he and other Christians could vote for and support Donald Trump no matter how much he lied, how much he fornicated with other women than his wife, how much he took to the media to berate and belittle his own appointees and government administrators. Mike Pence belongs to a branch of the Christian evangelical religion that takes its archetype for political involvement and activity from the story of Daniel and the emperor Cyrus.

In his 2016 book, God’s Chaos Candidate: Donald J. Trump and America’s Unraveling, Lance Wallau claimed that God spoke to him and revealed that candidate Trump was like the Persian King Cyrus cited in the Bible. Cyrus decreed that the Jews living in captivity in ancient Babylon could return to Israel and rebuild their temple. Voting for Trump entails a sacrifice to achieve a greater cause and objective.

First, the thesis presumes that Christians in America now live as aliens and a threatened minority in their own historic land. This is the same theses that Martin Luther King put forth in his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech fifty-five years ago on the Washington Mall on 28 August 1963: “the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.” This is how Evangelical Christians, and Lance Wallau in particular, currently portray the current plight of Evangelical Christians in America. They are living as a persecuted minority as exiles in their own land.

Second, they will be redeemed, not through good works and social justice, but by getting in bed with a pagan who will serve as God’s means to deliver them once again to the Promised Land and their rightful home. They will return from exile and once again build a commonwealth based on strict Christian (priestly Jewish) teachings (a kingdom that never existed in history as much as some Jews tried to create one). The rule of a new High Priest would esteem purity and ban homosexuality, drive strangers out of the land and revere ethnic homogeneity. The Black narrative is first appropriated and then applied to themselves in a competition of imagined victimhood.

Could anything be more miraculous than the pagan Donald Trump rescuing Mike Spence from political decline and obscurity following the farce of the anti-gay legislation he introduced in Indiana? Could anyone imagine anything more miraculous than Donald Trump no sooner – or even before he won the presidency – proceeding headstrong towards self-destruction? Yes. The story of Daniel in the Torah is interpreted to mean that, “God’s people can survive in exile—even under the fist of a despotic ruler—so long as one of their own tribe advocates on their behalf in the corridors of power.” One can have faith and serve Babylon at one and the same time. Because Babylon with a pagan, tenacious and willful ruler unintentionally will serve as a mechanism of return as Isaiah foretold (45:1).

א  כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה, לִמְשִׁיחוֹ לְכוֹרֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר-הֶחֱזַקְתִּי בִימִינוֹ לְרַד-לְפָנָיו גּוֹיִם, וּמָתְנֵי מְלָכִים, אֲפַתֵּחַ–לִפְתֹּחַ לְפָנָיו דְּלָתַיִם, וּשְׁעָרִים לֹא יִסָּגֵרוּ. 1 Thus saith the LORD to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him, and to loose the loins of kings; to open the doors before him, and that the gates may not be shut:
ב  אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ אֵלֵךְ, וַהֲדוּרִים אושר (אֲיַשֵּׁר); דַּלְתוֹת נְחוּשָׁה אֲשַׁבֵּר, וּבְרִיחֵי בַרְזֶל אֲגַדֵּעַ. 2 I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight; I will break in pieces the doors of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron;

Trump will be the wrecking ball to the spirit of political correctness and substitute religious correctness for Israel’s sake so that the nation can fulfill its divine assignment, and for America’s sake so that Christian nationalists can once again regain their proper place in the sun.

I had started to write this blog early Friday morning, but was sidetracked because of a request of one of my sons. I never got very far into it. On Friday evening when I was off to synagogue, at the corner of Nina and Bathurst Streets, I saw a vision. In the sky to the south at the bottom of the steep Bathurst Hill, there was a large hand in the sky. Beneath that sky, cars were driving towards the heavens and disappearing into the clouds. Of course, the huge hand in the sky was but a reflection in the misty late afternoon of the hand signal that warned pedestrians not to cross the street. The cars in the sky disappearing into the clouds were but reflections of the cars driving down the Bathurst Street hill. An unusual confluence of mist and air, and the sun remaining invisible, allowed what was on the ground to be reflected much larger than life in the sky. The heavens mirrored earth. It was an illusion.

Though this naturalistic explanation was correct, what I saw was a miracle nevertheless. It was a vision almost worthy of Daniel. God’s hand was so powerful that it could make cars and traffic disappear. Such is the power of God’s hand and His outstretched arm! Such is the willingness of humans to sacrifice their neighbours in the name of purification!

My theme in this series of blogs has been about etzem and how identity, or sameness, and independence can be reconciled. I wrote about Adam’s fantasy that woman was merely an extension and projection of man, woman more as possession than as objectification, though both misconceptions prove to be complementary. It is this tale of master and slave, of men as masters and women as their servants, that is even more fundamental than one ethnic group, one religious group or one race, subjecting another group to slavery.


כז  וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ:  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם.
27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.

Even in Genesis I, when God created man and woman, only man was made in the image of God. That is why in man’s dream, in Adam’s dream, woman is viewed as created, not this time as an image of himself, but as a physical extension and projection of himself. Only man in the image of God can say and it will be. Only man can name and classify and bring the categories of thought into being. Woman is simply made as a physical help meet of man – at least as told in the Biblical narrative of the faulty path of human illusions.

The biblical narrative begins, not with human independence, but interdependence, with man dependent on God and woman dependent on man. It is an asymmetrical interdependence. Man is beholden to God, not simply for his life, but for being created in the first place and for being given the position in turn of master over the physical universe. Man is the surrogate of God. Woman, on the other hand, is viewed by that man as simply his physical extension in the original doctrine of possessive individualism. But just as God is dependent on man for being recognized as the creator and master of the universe – animals and plants certainly cannot do that job – man is dependent on woman for serving his physical needs.

However, there was a fundamental difference between man and God epitomized by the two trees that God planted in Eden. One was the Tree of Life. God was eternal. Man was not. And man would not eat of the Tree of Life even though man deluded himself initially to believe that his destiny was to have eternal life.  A second tree was the tree of knowledge of good and evil, of moral discernment. Here, man had it over God. Because God was not a physical being. God did not have a sexual partner. Man, on the other hand, could know woman, could have sex with a woman and thereby discover the foundations of a moral universe. If God brought humans into the world in this archetypal mythical tale, man and woman would bring morality into the world. It was not sufficient to recognize the good, to wonder at the beauty of creation. It was necessary to understand evil as well and its source. As you will see, it is not sex.

How? Because the two trees, the tree of life and thee tree of knowledge of good and evil were also interdependent. Man was warned that if he ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, if man knew woman, if the two had sex, they would know that they were mortal and were not like God, would know that one day they would surely die and that they never would be able to eat of the tree of eternal life.

The story of the second creation of Eve, the creation of Eve in the imagination of the male, is about an Eve who is but a physical extension of man, an Eve who exists simply because man is lonely and, further, because the man that is lonely does not even recognize that he needs Eve as his companion and, further, that being alone is “not good.”

Woman is “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” And the two become one flesh in reality when they mate. But they do not, simply thereby, become partners in life.  For man does not see woman as his equal, does not see woman as an independent self-conscious being with whom he must establish and build a relationship. Look at how the mating game begins in Genesis III.

א  וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה, אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן. 1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman: ‘Yea, hath God said: Ye shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’
ב  וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה, אֶל-הַנָּחָשׁ:  מִפְּרִי עֵץ-הַגָּן, נֹאכֵל. 2 And the woman said unto the serpent: ‘Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat;
ג  וּמִפְּרִי הָעֵץ, אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ-הַגָּן–אָמַר אֱלֹהִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ, וְלֹא תִגְּעוּ בּוֹ:  פֶּן-תְּמֻתוּן. 3 but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.’
ד  וַיֹּאמֶר הַנָּחָשׁ, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה:  לֹא-מוֹת, תְּמֻתוּן. 4 And the serpent said unto the woman: ‘Ye shall not surely die;
ה  כִּי, יֹדֵעַ אֱלֹהִים, כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ, וְנִפְקְחוּ עֵינֵיכֶם; וִהְיִיתֶם, כֵּאלֹהִים, יֹדְעֵי, טוֹב וָרָע. 5 for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.’
ו  וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה-הוּא לָעֵינַיִם, וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל, וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ, וַתֹּאכַל; וַתִּתֵּן גַּם-לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ, וַיֹּאכַל. 6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.
ז  וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם; וַיִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה תְאֵנָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם חֲגֹרֹת. 7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles.

What do we know about the serpent? We know it stood erect. We know that the serpent was subtle and devious. In fact, the serpent is an outright liar for he describes sex as a divine experience when that is precisely what a Hebrew divinity can never experience. God did recognize what is good and not good (loneliness for man); God had not yet come to recognize what is evil.

The serpent insists that if Eve eats of the tree of knowledge she will know good and evil and that will be like being a divine being who knows good and bad, good and evil. We know that the serpent spoke to woman. We can surmise that when first mentioned, serpent is a euphemism among a host of euphemisms in the Bible. We may currently give a penis a proper name – Peter or Oscar– or call it a boner. The biblical writers were prone to use a wide variety of euphemisms to refer to a penis, such as “basar,” “flesh” in Exodus 28:42, the same word that is used in Genesis 2:23: “flesh of my flesh,” בָשָׂר מִבְּשָׂרִי. Woman then means bone of my bone, penis of my penis. Another euphemism for penis is erva עֶרְוָה or “nakedness,” as 3:7 above, עֵירֻמִּם.

Last night we went to hear The Hot Sardines at Koerner Hall, a terrific retro jazz band with superb musicians and even a tap dancer – see and hear them if they are in your neck of the woods – they play Vancouver at the Orpheum later this month and in Winnipeg in May – or if you go to New York, they perform at Joe’s pub. They put on a tremendous show. They are crisp and exacting musicians with a great horn and wood section. And they are funny in a sly and witty way, just as are some of the tunes they play from the days of dirty jazz in which all types of interactions with fruit were used to refer euphemistically to sex and passion.

Note the following about the biblical tale of the erect penis:

  1. Man objectifies his own penis and sees it as Other.
  2. That Other, unlike woman, is viewed as an entity with an independent being.
  3. That independent being, in contrast to the naïve Adam, obsessed with his naming ability and, thereby, bringing things into existence, is characterized by guile.
  4. Woman is seduced, not by a man, but by his penis, by woman discovering what a delight a penis is to the touch and the sight and the taking the penis in as food for the body and the spirit.
  5. Only in this way does Eve teach the blissfully unaware Adam, who does not even recognize Eve as an independent being but characterizes his penis as having independence from himself, that he too can take pleasure in his physical being.
  6. In discovering their nakedness, in discovering the penis, in discovering the wonders of sex, they are both ashamed.

Why do Adam and Eve feel shame? And what does sex and shame have to do with independence and autonomy?

To be continued.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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The Alt-Right in the Torah

A Prolegomena

I wrote the following blog on Sunday morning. But I did not send it out. Instead, I rewrote it on Monday. I still did not send it out. I set it aside on Tuesday and did other tasks in preparation for my leaving today. I read it over once again this morning, did a few edits and continued the debate with myself about whether to send it out. Spoiler alert! If you decide to read this tale of Israelite alt-right zealotry, you may find some current echoes, particularly a link between self-righteous religious pandering and wanton behaviour, and between defensive apologetics and inexcusable decadence.

In this case, I am not referring to Donald Trump and the alleged “treasonous” behaviour of Donald Trump Jr., but rather of Netanyahu’s pandering to the religious right and their imposition of shabat restrictive laws on the non-orthodox community while Netanyahu’s son, Yair, is recorded as engaging in whoring in Tel Aviv and of blackmailing wealthy friends for money to pay the prostitutes. “It was only fair given the $20 billion gas deal that “my father got you.” And there is another link – an emphasis on exclusion of the Other regarded as a danger to national identity. Donald Trump may inconsistently suddenly want to protect “dreamers,” Latin Americans brought to the U.S. at a very young age who grew up as Americans, but Netanyahu continues to move ahead to forcefully expel tens of thousands of African asylum seekers.

Why is corruption usually so intertwined with nationalist self-righteousness, whether in ancient Israel, contemporary Iran or the U.S.? Why are dodgy deals and sordid behaviour linked to a presentation of a wholesome image? When perpetrators are rewarded with an elevated status, is that elevation linked to a curse as well? Is hubris inevitable?

The Alt-Right in the Torah

by

Howard Adelman

If it is true, and, even further, if I endorsed Eric Ward‘s conclusion of his years of research, that the core of the alt-right is antisemitism, how can I suggest that the position of the alt-right is to be found in the Torah itself? I can because, although antisemitism is the central expression of the alt-Right of the twenty-first century, the core factors are universal. They characterize a certain type of personality and a certain type of political program. Those core values include the following:

Core Beliefs

  1. Supremacist beliefs, particularly male superiority
  2. Racism – defining that Other as inferior
  3. Placing blame on an Other
  4. Paranoia of that Other
  5. Nationalism rooted in racism to achieve security
  6. Ethnic cleansing or even genocide to get rid of the perceived threat
  7. Core Emotional Expressions
  8. Zealotry and evangelical fervour
  9. Cowardice or spinelessness – a lack of backbone
  10. Pornographic obsessions
  11. Authoritarianism
  12. A politics of resentment, of tactics and intrigue, rather than strategy aimed at achievable goals
  13. Utopian dreams of freedom from institutions and constraining rules
  14. Core Behaviour
  15. Spewing forth hatred
  16. Parading
  17. Property destruction
  18. Coercion versus assent; while projecting a utopian vision of social harmony, demonstrating a ready resort to non-state violence
  19. Attacks on Media
  20. Murder

The key part of the Torah where an alt-Right position is not only depicted, but seems to have been endorsed, takes place in the story of Pinchas or Phinehas in Numbers 25:10-30:1. Aaron’s grandson is called Pinchas. His most celebrated action is thrusting a spear or javelin through the bodies of a Simeonite prince, Zimri, son of Salu, and his paramour, Cozbi, a Midianite princess and daughter of Zur. It is an archetypal tale of a Jewish prince consorting with a shicksa (a gentile woman) that is perceived as threatening the genetic unity of the Israelites, completely ignoring that many, perhaps most, of the heroines in the Biblical tales are of non-Israelite background – whether Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh and refused to kill baby boys, the princess Bithiah who saved Moses, Zipporah whom Moses married, and, of course, Ruth.

The worst part of the story is not the lawless murder of the lovers, but that God forges a covenant of peace with Pinchas and makes Pinchas chief priest, inheritor of the mantle of Aaron. Not only Pinchas, but all his heirs and descendants. A divine priestly right of inheritance is created as Pinchas was credited for his “righteousness unto all generations forever.” (Psalm 106:28-31)

It is not as if this is a one-off story. It has a prominent place in the Torah. In fact, it is probably the most repeated narrative. The reward is discussed in Numbers 31:15-16 and the Ba’al Pe’or tale of sacrilegious behaviour is recounted in Deuteronomy 4:3-4, Joshua 22:16-18, Judges:20:28; 1 Samuel 1:3-4:11.

The story simplified is as follows: Just before the Israelites are to enter the Promised Land, at Shittim (named after an Acacia tree used to make furniture) where they camp, Israelite men become involved with Moabite women. Involved is a euphemism. The men are described as “whoring” with the Moabite women. Further, the men are not only enamoured by these women, but are enticed into their “idolatrous” practices. The Israelites were allegedly being led into sin via assimilation and flouting of the Mosaic ethical code.

As a result of the Israelite men consorting with the Moabite women and in partaking of their worship of their god, Ba’al, the Lord of the Israelites became incensed. God ordered Moses to take the ringleaders and have them impaled before him.  Only in that way could God’s wrath be redirected away from the Israelites. Moses ordered his officials to each slay those of his men who attached themselves to Ba’al Pe’or. Just after issuing the order, an Israelite male brought a Midianite, not a Moabite, woman into the camp. Phinehas or Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron, left the assembly at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and stabbed the man and the woman in their bed chamber with a spear right through their private parts.

Did it matter that a Midianite rather than a Moabite woman was the consort of the Israelite? Does it matter that in this case there was no association with worshipping false gods? Does it matter that Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses and a very important and influential political adviser, was a Midianite? Does it matter that this vigilante action was taken against people of wealth and status from both the Israelite and Midianite communities? Was the action motivated by resentment? Does it matter that the execution was carried out by Phinehas, whose name, like that of Moses, was of Egyptian origin and referred to a Nubian, perhaps from Sudan, like Sadat with a darker complexion? Had Aaron or his son, Eleazar, married a Nubian woman? Does it matter that the method of killing was not stoning – the usual means of dealing with those who followed false gods – but stabbing with a spear? Does it matter that they were stabbed through the belly? As Gunther Plaut notes (fn. 8), “into the chamber….through the belly” is a Hebrew word play better rendered “into the private chamber…through the private parts.”

When I was reading the latter, I immediately recalled a vivid scene. I was at the place of a mass murder outside of Butare in Rwanda of over 17,000 Tutsis who had been killed at the Murambi Technical School where they had sought refuge from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They had been buried in a mass grave. The bodies, barely decomposed because they had been so packed together, had been laid out on school benches and we had the onerous task of sampling and confirming the numbers slaughtered. I was most appalled by the babies and young children killed. But some of the women who were killed still had the spears in them that had been thrust up through their private parts to kill them.

In the biblical tale, the murder by Pinchas of the Israelite man and the Midianite woman stops the plague that had already killed 24,000. God spoke to Moses and praised Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron. Because of his action, God’s wrath and desire to commit genocide against the Israelites was turned aside. As a reward, God gave Phinehas a pact of friendship granting to him and his descendants a hereditary right to the priesthood in Israel. God then ordered the genocide of the Midianites.

Does it matter that an apparent result of destroying contact between Israelite men and Moabite and Midianite women may have had the benefit of stopping the plague which may have been made worse because the form of worship of the Moabites and their allies, the Midianites, was a of a fertility cult? Does it not matter that the murder was NOT “merely a kind of battlefield execution,” as Plaut describes in his commentary, but a summary execution of unarmed civilians in their private chamber? Does it matter that the persons killed had both status and wealth? Does it matter that humans had assumed God’s responsibilities to determine who should live and who should die? Whatever the answer and significance of the answers to the many questions above, what is clear is that, to repair a breach of the covenant, civilian murder and genocide were being endorsed in the Torah.

The issue becomes even more problematic. For when the story of Pinchas is the assigned Torah portion to be read that week, the Haftorah portion from the prophets that is read is the story of 1 Kings 18, where Elijah, who also acted in defence of the Jewish God and Hebrew practices, was so esteemed and even associated with the miracle of the resurrection of the dead. Elijah is viewed as a Messiah-in-waiting and Elijah’s name is invoked at the reading of Havdalah marking the end of shabat as well as at a Passover seder and in the performance of a brit, the circumcision ceremony.

More appalling I find is all the apologetics attached to the actions, to the beliefs and to the attitudes of Pinchas. For example, Targum Jonathan (18) claims that because Pinchas held the spear with his arm, prayed with his mouth, and stabbed the couple through their innards, that explains why the tender parts of the shoulder (zeroa), cheekbone (lechayayim) and maw (kevaw) accrue to the priesthood. Hirsch in his commentary insists that Pinchas was given such great credit because he caught them in flagrante delicto, in the overt prohibited act, and by the way he assassinated them, he sent a sign to others, as do professional mafia assassins and the gangs involved in the drug cartel. Given that the couple were “royals,” Pinchas was given greater credit; Moses, in contrast, had only slain an overseer and was not credited, even though the act was carried out in defence of another Israelite.

I am clearly disturbed by the tale. I am more disturbed by those who regard the spontaneous eruption of emotion, passion and murder as worthy of merit. I am appalled that commentators are not outraged by the action and by the apologetics that explain the action away as following the norms of the time. If so, why is the action not denounced in the commentary? Perhaps the story had an ironic thread. Perhaps the death of the two sons of Pinchas was his punishment. Perhaps the reward of an hereditary priesthood was really a curse for a family who would encounter tragedy after tragedy.

I am most troubled because the scene depicted conforms so closely to that of a mass rally where one of the demonstrators is so enraged that he leaves the crowd and takes upon himself the responsibility of murdering those with whom he disagrees. He is a zealot. Hatred spews from his mouth and blood comes from the use of his arms. Coercion not persuasion is the answer. When royals engage in the practice, it is regarded as even more heinous because, just as now, socialites stand out because of their role in the media in communicating values. Sometimes the messengers are killed as well. Antisemitic zealots murdered the Jewish radio talk show host, Alan Berg, in Denver.

The defined problem is not just a difference in belief between the Israelites compared to the Midianites and the Moabites, but that intercourse with the latter was regarded as the source of the plague. The others were blamed. The Israelites were not just different, but regarded themselves as superior. And the allure of females was pointed to as a source of betrayal. The others were not only regarded as Other, as an inferior Other, as a dangerous Other, but, in the name of respect for the Covenant of the Israelites with God, genocide was endorsed. Israelite nationalism was wedded to fanaticism in defence of security and continuity of the group.

Go further. In the portrait of God, vanity and brand management seem to be the key components at stake. The Israelites, in their escape from slavery, seem to be riven with insecurity and a fear of disappointing their demanding God. For God, politics is personal. Only He could occupy the limelight. If this does not trouble you, I would like to hear why.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

 

Canadian Civil Society I

Canadian Civil Society I

by

Howard Adelman

At the conference in Ottawa last week on “Our Whole Society: Religion & Citizenship at Canada’s 150th,” the objective was to advance solidarity among faith groups by allowing them to operate within a broader framework of shared practices, in spite of diverse perspectives. I was there to address the role of faith groups with respect to immigrants and refugees and to help comprehend the role of faith groups in society more generally.

In my talk, I addressed each of these topics. On the issue of solidarity, I challenged such an objective on two grounds. First, a family resemblance existed among different faith groups on shared practices and values that required no solidarity on perspectives. They already had a common frame; they did not need solidarity on content. As John Borrows noted in his keynote address, the goal should not be to close the space and eliminate the gaps between and among groups. Nor should it simply be to allow space for others. Rather, those spaces should be used to encourage dialogue and debate, to facilitate exchanges that encourage respect for others.

Secondly, I addressed the conjunction between immigrants and refugees and suggested a fundamental difference between the two groups, not in terms of the traditional difference between one group who came of their own free will and the other who came because they were forced to flee. Free will and coercion are not dichotomous choices. Rather they are ideal poles and different immigrant and refugee groups arrive with different degrees of each motivating their quest for Canadian citizenship. I then suggested that the groups could better be distinguished by the different ways they integrated into Canadian society, a process that had important implications for future support of refugees and for the premise of the interfaith dialogue that led to the cooperation of faith groups.

Third, I challenged the conception of “exclusive secularism” that seemed to have been presumed by the organizers. This is a brand of secularism that insists that a hard line had to be drawn between the secular and the faith worlds, as hard a line as Kant drew between reason and faith in his Critiques. I challenged this proposition on two grounds. First, in many jurisdictions, especially in France with its doctrine of laicité, secularism itself is a religion and a relatively dogmatic one at that. It is a value-rooted system that prescribes conduct and especially dress, not just the banning of the hijab by school girls, but the wearing of speedos by males at public swimming pools. Second, it is a myth that faith groups are excluded from the political process. They enjoy in many areas, but especially in the sphere of refugees, an intimate partnership with the state as well as with the rest of secular society.

Fourth, I insisted that research had pointed to the important relevance of history rather than the primacy of faith in explaining the hand religious groups extended to refugees. That is why the Mennonites and the Christian Reformed Church were first to step up to the plate in a partnership with the Government to bring Indochinese refugees into Canada in 1979 and why more established churches, the United Church and the Catholics, had been stragglers. There was a hierarchy of commitment among faith groups, but the degree of commitment was not determined by faith, but by the historical experience imprinted in a group’s priorities concerning the effort to be devoted to refugees.

But the major part of the talk addressed the family resemblance among the different faith groups. I argued that the same family resemblance was shared with a significant part of secular society so that it could be said that most Canadians share a Canadian Civil Religion. It is a civil religion because it is not rooted in a singular faith and because it influences and prioritizes what governments do and, in particular, how government deals with strangers, how it deals with immigrants and refugees, how it deals with the most important question a polis faces, who to admit into membership. They shared core values. The values as articulated below were all expressed by various participants on the first day of the conference. I merely wrote them down.

The easiest way to explicate the Canadian Civil Religion was to contrast it with the American Civic Religion currently dominant in our neighbour to the south. I stress the phrase “currently dominant,” because most Americans do not decry the Canadian values depicted below. Second, the current dominant American values are also present underground in the Canadian collective psyche.

A set of ten values as follows indicates the contrast:

Canada                                        U.S.A.

  1. Civility                                         Incivility
  2. Compassion                                Passion
  3. Dignity                                         Indignation
  4. Diversity                                      Unity
  5. Empathy                                      Insecurity
  6. Impartial                                     Partisan
  7. Egalitarian                                  Inegalitarian
  8. Fairness                                       Ruthless & even Unfair
  9. Freedom as a Goal                    Freedom as Given
  10. False-consciousness                 Humans as Falsifiers

Let me explore each of these dichotomies in turn. In doing so, I will make reference to the brilliant and gripping Netflix documentary, Get me Roger Stone, in which the Stone-Trump doctrine of cynicism is explicitly articulated. Roger Stone has been depicted by Jeffrey Toobin as the “sinister Forrest Gump of American politics.” Whereas the movie Forrest Gump provided a story in which a naïve innocent was present in every key event since 1960, Roger Stone’s biography reveals a cynical disrupter present in everything from an indirect involvement in the McCarthy hearings through his mentor and hero, Ray Cohn (who was also Donald Trump’s litigation lawyer) from whom Stone adopted his dandyism, to his own actual involvement in everything from Watergate to the election and performance of Donald Trump.

Though not ever present in the Canadian sprawl, at the centre of the Canadian Civil religion is the quality of civility. For Canadians, it is the queen of virtues. It is what Americans refer to when they say, “Canadians are so polite.” Civility esteems reasonable behaviour that elevates courtesy to an art form. At the funeral of Ron Atkey, one could not ignore the civility that characterized this man during his life and the order and respect of the memorial service in his honour at Metropolitan United Church. For society to be civil, political engagement has to show reverence for civility in the conduct of those who practice the profession. Civility, relatively, is an outstanding trait of the Canadian Parliament.

In contrast, Roger Stone and Donald Trump raised incivility to a political art form by using discourtesy to others, innuendo, ad hominem attacks, personal insults, troll accusations and hate speech as the core of the political process. Whether Trump was telling the Russian ambassador that Comey was a “nut job,” or whether he and Stone were leading a mass crowd to shout, “lock her up” in reference to Hillary Clinton, Trump wallowed in libel and defamed his final competitor in the race for the Republican nomination, Ted Cruz, by referring to stories accusing his opponent of being a sexual gallivanter when Trump’s own operators had written the stories. This is not a core value of most Americans. It is a core value of the Trump regime currently in charge of the polis in the U.S.

A second virtue extolled in the Canadian Civil Religion is compassion, a concern for the sufferings and misfortunes of others. Compassion entails not just pity, but self-sacrifice for others. Compassion is not merely driven by the sight of the dead three-year-old Syrian refugee boy, Alan Kurdi, washed ashore on a Turkish beach, or abhorrence at the horrors of war itself, as Donald Trump was possibly motivated by the dead children killed in the chemical attack by Syrian forces that left 75 dead, including 20 children. Donald Trump called the behaviour an “affront to humanity” and castigated Bashar al-Assad for his heinous action. But his outrage was not based on compassion for it did not lead to sacrifice and the admission of Syrian refugees into the U.S. Rather, it led to blowing up runways, facilities and planes with tomahawk missiles.

For the ideology of the Trump brand extols passion for a cause rather than compassion for others. Zealotry, intensity and pugnacity are highly praised under a doctrine of “take no prisoners” and leave behind a scorched earth. For the object is not just winning, but winning at any cost and winning at great cost to the other. For politics is not a positive sum game or even a zero sum game. It is a negative sum game in which you lose, but your opposition must suffer even greater losses. Politics becomes provocation and the only response to criticism is to attack, attack and attack.

A third virtue of the Canadian Civil Religion is dignity. Dignity admires serious attention to a problem and self-control in dealing with it. But it is not only a virtue with respect to one’s own bearing and conduct, speech and self-regard, it is also the accord extended to others who one considers to be a being who is valued even as one disagrees with his or her opinions. The virtue is identified with respect for inherent and inalienable rights. Humans of all types must be treated with dignity. So must the dead.

The contrasting values of the Stone-Trump ideology esteem indignation in oneself and insults aimed at the other. The goal of the latter is to humiliate and lay open to scorn the character and conduct of others. Indignation demonstrates unconcern and indifference for the other and total absorption and care for oneself. The object is to debase the other and draw attention to oneself.  The irony is that indignation is seen to arise because of perceived unfair treatment of oneself. One is affronted and takes umbrage at the disrespect shown. But indignation does not normally result in the quest for fair treatment, but rather in a view that the world is inherently unfair and that the only response is fight if one does not want to flee the plane of battle. Indignation presumes a politics of resentment and uses that deep understanding to mobilize those suffering from indifference and disrespect.

A fourth value esteemed in the Canadian Civil Religion is diversity. Often, many think that this is the primary cultural attitude as we extol multiculturalism. But the curious question is why anyone would prefer monochromatic unity in opposition to diversity. We do not want to eat at the same restaurant every night. And we all do not love meat loaf and fast food. Canadians extol the richness of multiculturalism, the benefits to society brought about when multiple cultures live side-by-side and interact.

However, the reverence for diversity, the respect for pluralism, is not confined to civil society. It permeates the polis, its makeup, policies and priorities. Canadians do not favour assimilation; Canada has no melting pot. Canadians do favour integration. Canadians support strong multiculturalism, not simply tolerance and respect for differences, but a positive effort to promote diversity both in the political representatives of our society and in how the government deals with different cultural groups. This is a work in progress because the government has never been able to adequately address the status and role of aboriginal groups in Canadian society. However, John Borrows in his keynote speech offered a primer on how to do precisely that.

Trump trumpeted unity in his victory speech. This past American Thanksgiving in late November, when Donald Trump was forming his government, he offered the following prayer: “It’s my prayer that on this Thanksgiving we begin to heal our divisions and move forward as one country strengthened by shared purpose and very, very common resolve.” From the most divisive force in the history of American politics, this prayer may have seemed like an expression of hypocrisy, but Trump has a record of engaging in fisticuffs and then inviting all those he beat up for a drink, while notably abstaining himself.

When he appointed South Carolina Governor, Nikki Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, it was not done to highlight America’s multiculturalism, but to honour the success of its efforts in assimilation. When he gave his first address to a joint session of Congress, he extolled unity to end a toxic, partisan environment, ignoring totally that he was the prime source of the toxicity. When he is in charge, everyone should march to the tune of the pied piper even as he plays very different tunes at different times. Unity is a virtue as long, and only as long, as it means unity in “following me.”

That appeal did not last as divisions worsened in society at large, between Democrats and Republicans, within the Republican caucus and even within the White House itself. Trump does not invite or welcome dissident voices. He sees himself as the captain of dissent and difference, but a captain intent on winning the big prize and forging a regime of unity under his suzerainty. It does not work in politics or in society, and Canadians know why.

To Be Continued

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Undercutting or Reinforcing Canada’s Civic Religion

Undercutting or Reinforcing Canada’s Civic Religion

by

Howard Adelman

In the previous blog, I wrote about the philosophic underpinnings of our current Canadian value system, what I call our Canadian civic religion. The positive spirit of our time and place is well expressed in the values and morals that have become dominant in Canada. They express the Absolute as revealed in our history that is articulated in the religious and moral consciousness of our age. There is possibly no better place to observe this spirit at work than at an interfaith conference held in Canada’s capital to commemorate the country’s 150th birthday as those in attendance searched for solidarity in diversity. The conference focused on Islamophobia, social inequalities, the plight of aboriginal peoples and on immigrants and refugees. In the final blog of this series, I will address the key elements of that civic religion, but today, tomorrow and the next day, I want to describe the conditions of our time that threaten it.

This past week, I attended the awards ceremony of the Donner Prize, a $50,000 award given to the best book published in Canada or by a Canadian on a public policy issue. The criteria for the award include the topicality of the issue covered, its significance (in the sense of importance) and the skill in communicating the subject matter. When the chair of the jury described the criteria and the process, he did not mention the depth, breadth and quality of the research and analysis entailed, but these factors could possibly have been included in the third criterion. A discussion of the five books on the short list offers a convenient portal to explore core Canadian values.

The five nominees for the prize, with my short form of reference included in square brackets, were:

  1. L’intégration des services en santé:une approche populationnelle[HIS – health services integration] (Yves Couturier, Lucie Bonin & Louse Belzile);
  2. Priests of Prosperity: How Central Bankers Transformed the Postcommunist World[Priests] (Juliet Johnson);
  3. A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices[Good Death] (Sandra Martin);
  4. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age[Lies] (Daniel J. Levitin);
  5. Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control[Political Branding] (Alex Marland).

 HIS is about efficiency and efficaciousness, values widely held, applied to the delivery of health services. Since it is about organization and administration rather than the values themselves, I will not discuss this book as offering a source of critical reflection on the spirit of our time.  Priests, the most thoroughly researched book, as well as the one from which most could be learned that was new, was the one I favoured for the prize. But I was the only one at my table to do so and it did not win.

Priests is not about a civic religion rooted in the practices and values of the people, but about a priest-centered one. It is about the holy of holies in a materialist society: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and, most of all, the consensus developed among Western bankers on how the globalized international economy operates and the consensual neoliberal rules governing international monetary policy. Price stability, limited inflation targets, credibility and transparency were its central idols rather than employment, growth and social security. What better way to understand the priesthood than by examining the priests of another religion, a mercantilist one, converted and indoctrinated between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 2007.

The sacrificial goats in the West were those who had to absorb the impact of obsolescence and the home owners, particularly in the United States, who found the values of their homes underwater when the U.S. asset bubble suddenly deflated and Lehman Brothers collapsed. Unlike the banks, commoners were not bailed out by the neo-economic policies of the Obama program to save the Western financial system when the crisis became full-blown in 2008. And the crisis remains with us as Europe faces one crisis after another as the 2007-08 collapse turned into a sovereign debt crisis for some members of the EU. The priestly religion had lost its absolute authority and saintly status as the two elder children of the system (a puzzle for my readers) took their own lives as martyrs to save the system but, note, not reduce the suffering.

For no longer were monetary and financial policy to be left in separate silos to prevent the former from contamination by the latter. The priests, on the defensive, blamed the crisis on excessive risk-taking in financial policies by the politicians. The high priests were not to blame but, rather, the political commoners forbidden entry to the holy of holies who stormed the holy gates and, helped by a few wayward priests who betrayed their calling by innovating and not using consensual monetary policy to reign the upstarts in, contaminated the holy of holies. The temple was not destroyed. Its ramparts were reinforced as central bankers eased up on the strict monetary code with quantitative easing and other measures.   

This book, however, unlike my treatise, is about priests and not commoners, and the conversion and indoctrination of the priests of an alien mercantilist religion in Eastern Europe. The losers and the victims in the West are not the subject of this volume. In the final chapter, the book is also about the god that failed. The result, faith in globalization, in the international priesthood and its values and norms, suffered a drastic blow. One of the results – the rise of protectionism and mercantilism along with populism in the West. Juliet Johnson does not overtly deal with the irony of this outcome in her final chapter, but it haunts that whole chapter as the effort to salvage the role of the central banks rested, not on reducing their functions, but expanding them into micro-level financial regulation and supervision, thereby politicizing the banking system and removing its immunity from day-to-day politics.

The commoners were entering the holy of holies. Donald Trump was elected on a protectionist platform. He became a partner of Vladimir Putin in the effort to resurrect mercantilism, including the kleptocracy that accompanied such policies as Trump himself had been a beneficiary of the $500 billion Russia had accumulated in foreign reserves during the oil boom. Russian money was laundered through Western capital investments. If Putin and his cronies helped Trump, then Trump would return the favour now that the Russian economy was in dire straits. In turn, the Trump brand would directly benefit from the resurrection effort and the U.S. currency as the stabilizing factor of last resort was about to be put on the altar for sacrifice in the holy of holies, thereby contaminating it forever.

The fight for control of the Holy Temple is now in full swing. It is important background to my concern with civic religion.

Four of ten people at my table voted for Good Death to win the prize, but, like HIS and Priests, it also did not win. Good Death, like most of the other books on the short list for the award, is ultimately about social ethics. The book focuses on the right to die at a time of one’s choosing in the search to find the correct balance between compassion for the suffering and protection of the vulnerable, between individual choice and social responsibility.  As Sandra Martin wrote, “Baby boomers, reared on choice and autonomy, are radically restructuring the landscape of death, not only for themselves but for their elderly patients and the children coming up behind them.”

I mention her book as the first of the three dealing with civil society values because it affirms the critical importance of the leading cohort in society changing the ethics and practices in dealing with how and when a person chooses to terminate personal suffering. For the book is more about suffering than death. A good death comes with a minimum of suffering; this is the semi-Aristotelian premise of the volume.

Choice. Autonomy. In contrast to those values, Daniel J. Levitin in Lies contrasts the bad data, half-truths and outright lies in our current information age with the need to evaluate rational arguments, assess statistical data and recognize the meanings of words used in communication. Donald Trump demonstrates daily how limiting access to information – about workplace violation of norms and corporate disregard of environmental regulations that offer the new norm – has undermined Moses’ (Obama’s) political leadership in moving towards the Promised Land. While the financial crisis seriously weakened the sacred authority of monetary policy as set by central bankers, Trump was busy attacking the legitimacy of the polis itself by deregulating its role in every field as he issues ethical wavers to allow the profiteers and outright crooks to enter the political palace.

Levitin offers up the rabbinic codes of the information age, defining the proper use of statistics and how they are to be read, the role of clear and distinct language to replace obfuscation, and the role of informal logic to construct rational arguments and spot fallacies. The book is particularly strong on statistics but somewhat weak in its discussion of language while providing a clear and concise introduction to informal logic. However, it is like reading a nostalgic longing for the enlightenment, for rationality and for the scientific method in the face of a rise in philistinism and irrationality in public discourse.

Alex Marland, in the book that won the Donner prize, took an opposite tack and focused on the Canadian polity to uncover the role of unreason and control – in contrast with Sandra Martin’s celebration of choice and autonomy – in managing information and spreading a message. But it was the most moralistic book of them all, upholding a rationalism in public discourse, not as a standard as Levitin did, but as a “rational” populist political counter to the sustained effort to desecrate autonomy and choice in favour of collective thought on a niche level and the control over what people choose.

Branding is not inherently bad. The effort in marketing and selling an idea or a product by controlling images and messages from a central point of authority offers concision, simplicity and efficacy in communication. However, in his analysis, institutional weaknesses and the current digital media environment – not illogic, innumeracy and lack of literacy – are the culprits.

 

I end with Marland’s very sincere and spontaneous acceptance speech (he was truly surprised at winning). It dwelt with how to keep the threatening ghouls away from your door. The priests, evidently, will not protect you. Neither will simple good management. Presumably, confronting the sources of irrationality with logic, statistics, logical arguments and precision in one’s use of language will not keep the zombies at bay. In the age of messaging and mass manipulation, any emphasis on choice and autonomy might be a side show. What does Marland suggest in dealing with the outright lies, distortions and distractions of Donald Trump?

Turn the messaging mechanism off whenever Trump is discussed. Become a silent and distanced protester. Spend your considerable time on helping to forge Canadian policy where, in my words, a more compatible civic religion and political institutions exist. Will heeding the voice of a superego to ensure purity and immunity from contamination save us?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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

Fuck God!

Fuck God!

by

Howard Adelman

Wow! Neither the crusading atheists, Richard Dawkins nor Christopher Hitchens, wrote that. Hitchens did say to religious believers, “Fuck you” and Fuck off,” but never wrote or verbalized “Fuck God” to the best of my knowledge. That is because he was more interested in writing about his disbelief in God than indicating any relationship to God. For someone who blasphemes God suggests an irritation or anger with God, Otherwise, why say it? Irritation or anger with someone is not denial or banishment to an unspoken world. I wanted the reader to have at least a sliver of understanding about the powerful effect of blaspheming God.

Nevertheless, the expression in the title remains ambiguous. Not in its meaning! It is unequivocally a blasphemous statement. But it is ambiguous in the sense that the reader does not know whether I am asserting what the phrase says or whether I am writing down the phrase as an object for dissection. I could have put the expression in quotation marks, but that would not have helped much. Because I could be quoting myself. Further, I would have lost some of the impact. I want readers to grasp what blasphemy is directly since we are far removed from a world and a time when blasphemy was not merely shocking, but a reason to stone me to death for making such an utterance. If I may cite an eminent authority, Prince Charles declared that we had lost the sense of the sacred in our public life. We no longer recognize that cursing God should arouse revulsion, rage and revenge. When religious identity is at the core of who you are, then cursing God is akin to calling someone a dirty Jew.

Last evening, I saw an excellent Israeli Bedouin film called Sand Storm. At one point in the movie, a first wife not only disobeys her husband, but talks back to him and goes further and even insults him. She is not stoned. But she is “banished” from her husband’s compound and, in disgrace, sent back to the home of her parents and separated from her four daughters. We would not only regard the punishment as unacceptable, but as cruel and unjust. On the other hand, in the rabbinic tradition, capital punishment for blasphemy was avoided by resorting to the lesser penalty of banishment for limited periods, say seven days, though in the most liberal of states, the Netherlands, Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated in the middle of the seventeenth century for life for his pantheistic interpretation of God. (The condemnation has never been reversed.)

On my birthday two years ago on 7 January 2015, the newsroom massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo took place in Paris. The instigation for the attack was alleged blaspheme – and not even of God, but of one of his most important prophets – Muhammad. Charlie Hebdo spent years mocking believers and institutions like the Roman Catholic Church. Its cartoons were trenchant and telling, for the target was the marriage of belief and power and the elevation of some subjects to the sacred. The Catholic Church sued Charlie Hebdo 14 times, each unsuccessfully. The constant object of attack was the hidden and not so hidden racism in French society that hides behind white robes and the so-called civility of society.

This was precisely the subject of debate when two brothers, Said and Chérif Kouachi, with Kalashnikovs and a grenade launcher stormed the offices of the magazine shouting, “Allah Akbar,” God is great! as they fired indiscriminately and insisted that, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” (On the same day, in addition to the journalists, a policeman as well as members of the Jewish community were murdered at other locations.) For Al Qaeda had vowed revenge when Charlie Hebdo first printed the portrait of the prophet on its front cover and then republished the infamous Danish caricature mocking Islamic fanaticism nine years after the cartoon first appeared. In defence of Al Qaeda, does not the Hebrew Torah also condemn cursing Abraham as well as God? (Exodus 22:27)

Canadian law (Criminal Code Section 296) still prohibits blasphemy, a critical issue for many now that Bill M-103 has passed condemning Islamophobia. Blasphemy is the act of showing contempt or failing to display reverence and respect for religious symbols or persons. Though the penalty is not execution or stoning, you can get up to two years in prison.

  1. (1) Everyone who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years

(2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.

(3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in contrast, in 1952 in the case of Joseph Burstyn v. Wilson ruled that “it is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion pictures.” Under the blasphemy laws until Cromwell intervened, a Sephardic Jew and physician, Jacob Lumbrozo, whose family had once fled the inquisition, was charged in Maryland, a Catholic colony, in 1658 with blasphemy under the ironically named Toleration Act of 1649 that adumbrated the language of the laws of George Orwell’s 1984.

The fight was over freedom of expression. For in our contemporary Western secular civil religion, freedom to say what you want is far more sacred than any reverence for divinity. But not everywhere. Specifically, not in the Middle East. Fanatics were causing mayhem and murder in their war against the new secular civic religion. In defence of the latter, some journalists were willing to risk and even sacrifice their lives. And sacrifice they did. All for insisting that laughter had to be protected in the face of assaults on it in the name of something else regarded as sacred. Charlie Hebdo was not against, was not opposed, to those who would elevate God or Jesus or Muhammad to sacred status. It did fight against those who would deny its right to have its own set of sacred values. Charlie Hebdo was not Islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo was philofreedom.

On the other hand, would Charlie Hebdo defend the right of Islamicists not only to openly advocate suppressing blasphemous speech, but to urge a community to stone or kill by other means anyone who engages in blasphemy? Would Charlie Hebdo not insist on some boundaries to free speech as a central core value, i.e., when free speech is used to advocate attacks on free speech and the murder of its defenders? When or if caveats are used to limit free speech in the name of free speech, especially if the defender of this position is an anarchist and/or pacifist like many of the journalists writing for Charlie Hebdo, is this not hypocrisy? Whatever one’s position, it does make clearer the strong motivation behind laws against blasphemy.

Whatever criticisms I have had of the French secular civil religion of laicité and its own paranoid intolerance of hijabs, that religion does affirm the right to be blasphemous. (See Caroline Fourest (2015) Éloge du blaphsphème, In Praise of Blasphemy, Grasset.) The civic religion of North America does not, and no English edition was published even though the United States is far ahead of Canada on this subject. Further, the current compassionate Pope Francis in some sense defended the murderous response to blasphemy as “normal.”

And it once was. Blasphemous, irreverent or sacrilegious words about God are not only condemned, but acts not strictly in accord with God’s instructions for behaviour in the holy of holies are worthy of capital punishment as well. God killed the two eldest sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, for making such an error. Profaning God’s name was equivalent to profaning God’s home. Fanatical Islam simply expands the targets to anyone insulting the Prophet of Islam. One of the deep roots for the condemnation of blasphemy is to be found in this week’s portion of Leviticus. And not only in Leviticus. Exodus 22:27 reads:

אֱלֹהִים לֹא תְקַלֵּל וְנָשִׂיא בְעַמְּךָ לֹא תָאֹר. You shall not revile God, nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people.

Insulting the head of state is also considered blasphemy.

The opening chapter of Parashat Emor (verse 6 of chapter 21) reads:

קְדֹשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם… They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God.

The injunction is repeated in 22:32. “Don’t profane my Holy NAME that I may be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel.”

The wording in Leviticus 25:14 sets out the penalty:

ויקרא כד:יד הוֹצֵא אֶת הַמְקַלֵּל אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה וְסָמְכוּ כָל הַשֹּׁמְעִים אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל רֹאשׁוֹ וְרָגְמוּ אֹתוֹ כָּל הָעֵדָה. Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.

Leviticus 24:15 states:

ויקרא כד:טו …אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יְקַלֵּל אֱלֹהָיו וְנָשָׂא חֶטְאוֹ. כד:טז וְנֹקֵב שֵׁם יְ-הוָה מוֹת יוּמָת רָגוֹם יִרְגְּמוּ בוֹ כָּל הָעֵדָהכַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח בְּנָקְבוֹ שֵׁם יוּמָת. Anyone who vilifies his God shall bear his guilt. And the one who invokes the name of YHWH shall surely die, all the assembly shall surely stone him; the ger and the citizen alike, he who invokes the name shall die.

The impression seems clear. Blasphemy is verboten and deserving of the harshest punishment. However, is that the lesson of the text? I suggest otherwise. The text offers one case study. (24:11) The son of an Israelite woman who married an Egyptian gets into a fight with an Israelite and says the equivalent of, “Fuck God!” Moses, upon God’s command, orders the community to remove that individual and stone him. Banishment alone was insufficient given the perceived enormity of the crime.

וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל וַיָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ שְׁלֹמִית בַּת דִּבְרִי לְמַטֵּה דָן. The son of the Israelite woman invoked the name, vilifying it, and he was brought to Moses. And the name of his mother was Shelomith, daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan.

But then why is the description of this event immediately followed by a universal injunction against taking another’s life? Is the passage and the general narrative really about an objection to blasphemy or is it an objection to a norm which justifies murder provoked even by blasphemy? For is not the implication of the initial tale of a fight between an Israelite and a child of a mixed marriage that the fight was about racism? This fight ran contrary to the injunction to welcome the stranger, to welcome the ger. And even within the laws of blasphemy, was not the ger to be treated equally with any Israelite? The key question is whether the incident illustrates how important and sacred are laws protecting the sacred so that those who defile God’s name are to be put to death. Or is the story told to carry the message that racism is wrong and that murder in the name of blasphemy is heinous?

We have two interpretations of the same narrative that are totally at odds. In one, a standard version, the text stresses the enormity of the crime of blasphemy and the consequent severe punishment for engaging in it. For blasphemy was an attack on the central core beliefs of the Israelites in their one and singular God. Reverence for God is absolutely necessary to preserve and strengthen the identity of the Israelites as holy, as God’s chosen people. Profaning the name of God detracts not only from the reverence for God, but turns the utterer away from being holy to being profane. (21:6) God, in turn, may, as a result of such treatment, turn his back on His chosen people and abandon them as unholy. Further, when the sacrilege of blasphemy takes place, it is necessary to unite the people in defence of God’s name.

In the other interpretation, the real issue is racism and the gross mistreatment of someone who curses God. What is the evidence for questioning the standard interpretation? A least, what are the puzzles that give rise to questioning the standard traditional account?

Note the following:

  • The boy (not man) who commits the “crime” of blasphemy is the child of a mixed marriage.
  • There is an implication that the altercation that gave rise to his cursing God was the use of a racial epithet against him.
  • Though the son is not named, the Israelite mother is, Shelomit (a peacenik (though Rashi calls her a strumpet), daughter of Dibri (from dever, destruction) of the tribe of Dan; there is also the suggestion that she was a single mother, possibly the mother of a son that was the result of rape by an Egyptian man in an inversion of the Moses story.
  • Professor Wendy Zierier has pointed out that the phrasing used is both unusual and follows the same formulation as the reference to the matriarch, Rebecca, “who is referred to as רִבְקָה בַּת־בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם, “Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean, from Paddan-Aram,” a formulation also used to depict the kings of Israel.
  • Why is the parent of a blaspheming son provided with such a lofty designation and what had her preachiness about peace and her heritage from a shit-disturber have to do with the meaning of the story?
  • There is the repeated stress that all children of God, not just Israelites, fall under the injunction not to profane God’s name.
  • Further, Israelites are specifically enjoined not to wrong the ger, the stranger who lives amongst them.
  • However, there is the suggestion that an Egyptian, unlike the stranger, is not to be treated equally because he introduced an “impurity” into the Israeli blood – if this sounds racist, that is the intention; after all, Leviticus insists that it is wrong to wear clothes made of mixed materials or to take one breed of cattle and “mix” it with another.
  • Further, the father of that son was an Egyptian, a ember of a people whose oppression the Israelis fled; the boy is not just of a mixed “race,” but his father was an enemy and not just a stranger living among the Israelites.
  • In the punishment, the boy is first banished from the camp and stoned outside it.

The answer to these puzzles, which I can only sketch, interprets the tale, not as a defence of blasphemy laws, not as a defence of racism, not as a defence of patrilineal descent, but as a stricture against such values. It is precisely because laws of blasphemy can be abused by those in power, as Queen Jezebel used them to punish and take away the vineyard for her husband, King Ahab. Donald Trump has demonstrated that he is made of the same deformed spirit who would punish those not absolutely loyal to and in service of his regime so that what he says is not hate speech, but what the critical media write.

The meaning of the tale is given by the ending – do not murder. Do not kill. Especially, do not kill in the name of protecting God’s name. If that is the case, why does God order Moses to tell the people to stone the boy? I suggest it is a parallel to God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son. Only this time, God does not intervene and save Moses from such a heinous act. Moses carries it out and stains the future of Jewry and of all humankind just as he once, in rage against an Egyptian overseer’s injustice, killed that Egyptian. In the end, Moses never learned to overcome his rage and all humans had to be enjoined not to kill.

The Silence of Smell

The Silence of Smell

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday I began to probe the question about an appropriate or the appropriate way to deal with the loss of a loved one or with a mourner who suffered such a loss. In particular, I was concerned with silence as a response, a focus stimulated by my Torah study group that zeroed in on Aaron’s silence in the face of God’s murder of his two eldest sons for their error in using incense and lighting the fire in the holy of holies. Though the link to this passage was provided by Yom HaShoah, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance that begins this evening, almost everyone in that study session focused on the issue of individual responses to death rather than to a historic and unprecedented community loss.

Perhaps that is because the answer is simple in the latter case. A common trope in Holocaust literature is the inability of language or any individual emotional response to deal with the enormity and incomparibility of the disaster. In the face of the Holocaust, silence may possibly be the only appropriate response. This is true to Jewish religious tradition. In Lamentations 2:13, in the face of the destruction of the Temple, the Israelite asks, “what can I liken you, oh fair Jerusalem? What can I match with you to console you, oh fair maiden of Zion?” When disaster is overwhelming, when there is no pain like it, no response, not even silence, seems appropriate.

However, in reality, silence may not simply be inadequate. It may be wrong. It may be an inappropriate response. To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 27th of January, Donald Trump issued a statement that did not mention the Jewish people. Admittedly, this is not exactly comparable, for it is the response of a sympathizer rather than the mourner. Further, it was not as if the White House remained silent. It issued a response that simply omitted any mention of Jews. It then doubled down on its error by attempting to explain in terms of an effort at inclusiveness for there were many other victims of the Nazi murder machine than Jews – Roma, homosexuals, liberals, trade union leaders, the victims of the Nazi euthanasia program of the disabled. The collective furor from the Jewish community, however, was understandable.

But they might have been thankful for small favours. Trump did not engage in an even more inappropriate response by shifting the focus to America’s sacrifices in the conquest of Nazi Germany. If silence becomes an excuse for ignoring the specificity of suffering, recollecting one’s countries positive efforts is surely an inappropriate response.

Contrary to my belief that Donald Trump never seems to learn from his daily errors, this time the White House responded very differently to Yom HaShoah. Trump sent out a video tape in which he said the following:

“On Yom HaShoah we look back at the darkest chapter of human history. We mourn, we remember, we pray, and we pledge: Never again. I say it, never again. The mind cannot fathom the pain, the horror and the loss. Six million Jews, two-thirds of the Jews in Europe, murdered by the Nazi genocide. They were murdered by an evil that words cannot describe and that the human heart cannot bear. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, we tell the stories of the fathers, mothers and children, whose lives were extinguished and whose love was torn from this earth. We also tell the stories of courage in the face of death, humanity in the face of barbarity, and the unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people.”

While the sentiments expressed were now appropriate, Trump still erred, this time by commission rather than omission, by going on to repeat another myth, one most frequently perpetrated by Jews themselves. The birth of Israel was a response to the Holocaust and testimony to Jewish perseverance. The latter may be true, but Israel would have come into existence without the Holocaust. There is no evidence that the passage of the UN motion on partition took place because of worldwide guilt over the Holocaust. Silence in the face of the Holocaust was the usual response at the time and is now generally perceived as “inappropriate.”

Further, an outpouring of grief is the usual response of young people when they come face to face with the Holocaust. In response to yesterday’s blog, a reader described a documentary I have never seen about Israeli youth visiting the crematoria and internment camps in Poland. Each young person is given the name of a specific victim and asked to research their lives, their history. The effort is painful. The youth do the work and cry and wail. They are not silent.

What a contrast with the depiction of visitors by Alex Cocotas in his article in Tablet entitled, “BLOW UP THE MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED JEWS OF EUROPE.” The memorial is located in Berlin’s central government district near the Brandenburg Gate. If a visitor is not cavorting among the 2,711 stelae, he or she is bewildered and struck silent, not by the enormity of the deed, but by the disorientation of the maze that results. Quiet contemplation, as he has observed, is rare. Play and selfie photos are the norm. As he writes, “It is, for them, an Event, spreading from Instagram to Instagram, an item on the itinerary, somewhere between currywurst and the East Side Gallery, tethered to intention by a geotag.”

I have had only one very direct experience in encountering the mass deaths of victims of a genocide. In my study with Astri Suhrke of the role of bystanders in the genocide of 800,000 to one million Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, we visited the disinterred bodies of a mass grave that held over 16,000 victims. The skeletons of children, of women with rods thrust up their vaginas, of body after body laid out on the school benches in each of the classrooms at the technical school where they were killed, was overwhelming. We were all struck dumb, but not exactly silent. We had to talk because our visit had a functional component – confirming the accuracy of the figures of the total number of victims. We counted and compared counts.

The bodies had been disinterred only weeks before. The mass grave had been so packed, that there was very little decomposition of the flesh. It hung on the skeletons like the rags left of their clothes. If the picture never leaves me of that scene, the most powerful experience was the horrific smell. I need only mention the incident and the smell comes back as if I was still there. The immediacy of the confrontation with mass death comes primarily from my nostrils, not my voice. My mind goes into overdrive, racing from one portrait to another, one reflection to another.

Nothing is as evocative as the sense of smell, more so even than any picture. Auditory and visual records, words formed to convey experiences – none of these seems to compete with smell. Therefore, I entitled this blog the Silence of Smell. I could have called it the Smell of Suffering but that would have ignored my major theme – the appropriateness or inappropriateness to giving voice to the suffering of others and one’s own suffering at the memory. At that time, giving voice was not the issue. Olfactory nausea and unfathomable emotional disturbance was the order of the day and was the source of the most recurring and disturbing memories.

We know our sense of smell is located in the centre of the brain. So perhaps smell, rather than debates over giving voice to the enormity of the crime, may be a more appropriate way of memorializing mass murder and death. After all, smell is central to many happy memories as well. That is how I best remember my children when they were infants. I can still smell the sweet scent of their poop and fragrance of the powder applied to prevent any rash from forming.

There may be another reason for stressing the silence of smell as a route to memorializing. Scent is associated with nostrils. And nostrils are associated with being nosy, with sticking your nose into affairs ostensibly not of your making or your concern. When it comes to genocide, the dictum of minding your own business, of remaining silent, is inappropriate. And the issue is not simply that you could have been the victim, that we ought to engage in humanitarian intervention because of our shared humanity. An abstract common identification as humans has not proven to be very effective in motivating risk and involvement.

In any case, the identification is a false one. I live a life of privilege in a land that not only guarantees freedom, but delivers on the promise, in a land that not only ensures my well-being, but goes a long way to delivering on that promise as well. But not all the way. Not for everyone. And if the promise proved false for me, it is possible that I might focus my attention exclusively on my and my family’s deprivation rather than the general deprivation of others.

But perhaps that is not the purpose of silence, not the purpose of the silence of smell or the smell of suffering. The issue is really not my identification with the victim. The issue is not whether, but for the grace of God, that could have been me. As I counted bodies disinterred from that mass grave dug three weeks before Juvénal Habyarimana was killed and three weeks before the Rwanda genocide began, the issue was not my identification with those killed, but with those who perpetrated the crime. But most of all with those who abetted the crime by their silence, by their indifference.

The victims of the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide and the Armenian genocide and all the other enormous crimes against particular peoples, were victims because they were not responsible for taking their fate into their own hands. The genocide was perpetrated because that responsibility was removed from their hands. If we identify with that victimhood, we identify with our incapacity in some circumstances to take action when we need to be reminded that we are in a position of responsibility to intervene.

Further, it is almost impossible for us who live in privileged circumstances and enjoy the responsibility of guiding the course of our own lives to identify with victims who were denied that privilege. And if we had been so denied, at the time our response might just as likely have been the responsibility to protect ourselves, not other victims of the crime of cancelling that responsibility. Identification with victimhood has a tendency to inculcate either self-pity or passivity and not our sense of responsibility. The task of memorializing and of mourning is to remember, not that we or those who died were ineffectual and passive victims of the laws of nature or the realism of international political affairs, but that they lived lives of wonder and discovery and to discover how and why we betrayed them. For ordinary people allow the perpetuation of such atrocities by the few.

I was and remain a citizen of one such country that failed in its responsibility – not the main one, for General Roméo Dallaire somewhat redeemed a streak of Canadian honour. Canada did not live up to the responsibility to protect. The issue was not identification with the victim or identification with victimhood, but identification with perpetrators. In that, there can be and should not be any silence as the silence of smell always reminds me. The smell of mass death is universal. But memory must bring to life those who lived and became victims, individuals who had parents and children or were children themselves. Yom HaShoah for me is both the silent smell of mass murder and the need to talk about the personal lives of those who lived and died.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman