Saturday, April 30, 2016

Getting Back to First Principles

I don’t care for the comparisons between some of our current Presidential candidates and Hitler and Mussolini, but at least I understand such comparisons.  I also appreciate why these candidates are especially scary to certain components of our population, and can’t say that these fears are poorly founded.  To a degree, I share those fears.  Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with those who say that the candidates at issue are willing to take a nation that once fought a vicious Civil War over the principle of national unity and divide us into a land of insiders versus outsiders, “patriots” versus “aliens,” and “us” versus “them.”  These divisions remind me of the America that existed before the Civil War.  That’s why we had to fight such a devastating war – to become the UNITED States of America, rather than a place that paid lip service to liberty while denying many of us our dignity, let alone our freedom.   

So when it comes to hoping that none of the candidates at issue are elected President in November, count me in. But I’ll tell you this – just because I oppose the Demagogic Dividers, doesn't make me willing to support efforts to thwart the public’s will when it comes to elections.  I decry the acts of protesters who, in the name of progressive values, wish to muzzle or intimidate politicians who they disagree with.  I similarly decry the acts of politicians who, in the name of pragmatic or moderate values, support collusion or other forms of gamesmanship to prevent the majority candidate or even the plurality candidate from winning elections.   I also decry the existence of superdelegates, unpledged delegates, and other devices used to provide more power to political insiders than to other Americans.   I still believe, in other words, in the principle that when it comes to elections, the candidate with the most votes should win.  Period.

Why do I feel so strongly about the latter principle even at a time when Demagogic Dividers abound?   In part, it’s because I haven’t completely lost my confidence in the sanity of the American public.  But it’s also because the idea of democracy is such an enormous part of what I believe makes America great.  Remember, when this country began, there were no other democracies in the world, at least not if you’re talking about places that were more than just city-states.  America in practice was hardly a perfect democracy, and that continued even after the Civil War. But at least in theory, America stood for the idea that millions upon millions of people could live democratically and freely, and that the collective wisdom of the masses exceeded that of any set of oligarchs.  Yes, our Constitution makes room for legislators who represent us by voting their conscience, rather than simply seeking a plebiscite on all issues, yet when it comes to selecting these legislators or the Chief Executive who bargains with them, that privilege has been left to the people to decide.  Our Founding Fathers made that idea paramount when they gave birth to a nation that became a role model for the modern world.  

I could go on to make my point, but I’d rather see it made by a better writer.  I’d rather see it made in the form of a short statement that is probably my favorite piece of writing in American history.   It needs no introduction.  It needs only our periodic attention and respect.  

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Passover Homily

“Peace is not just the absence of war, but a virtue which comes from strength of mind.”
Spinoza, Political Treatise, Chapter V

Spinoza’s quotation about peace is exactly what you’d expect from a man who wrote a book entitled The Ethics and turned it into a discourse on the philosophy of God, epistemology, psychology, human bondage, and human freedom.  Spinoza was never one to give profound words their narrowest possible meaning.  So when it came to discussing peace, he was as concerned about inner peace as the outer variety.   Spinoza appreciated that it is far more difficult to enjoy the former without the latter.  But he also grasped that the deepest tragedy of the human condition is that even people who enjoy outer peace – i.e., the absence of “war” – tend to be enslaved by their own emotions.   As a result, the condition commonly known as “peace” consists largely of tormented hearts that live at war with themselves and their societies.  Dr. Spinoza preached that we as individuals can liberate ourselves from those hurtful emotions, but such liberation is indeed rare – as all things excellent sadly are.  

One of the great ironies of Spinoza’s teachings is that he supposedly opposed the idea of free will and affirmed instead strict determinism.  But when you read his greatest philosophical work, The Ethics, you note that above all else, it is a manifesto on how to free ourselves from bondage.  This concept is central to the thinking of any Jewish philosopher, for there are few goods more cherished in the Jewish faith and the Jewish culture than that of human autonomy.

When Einstein, one of Spinoza’s most influential disciples, identified the three features of the Jewish tradition which make him thankful to belong to it, he mentioned “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence.”   Though Einstein never ranked those three items, I’m sure he recognized that the pursuit of either justice or knowledge is made infinitely more difficult if you don’t enjoy the blessings of personal independence.  Not surprisingly, when Goethe, another of Spinoza’s greatest disciples, spoke of the vision that led Faust to tell the Devil that he was ready to give his soul up because  he had finally experienced the ultimate earthly bliss, what was this vision but that of widespread human autonomy.  Here are Faust’s immortal words:

“There is a swamp, skirting the base of the hills, a foul and filthy blot on all our work.  If we could drain and cleans this pestilence, it would crown everything we have achieved, opening up living space for many millions.  Not safe from every hazard, but safe enough.  Green fields and fruitful too for man and beast, both quickly domiciled on new-made land, all snug and settled under the mighty dune that many hands have built with fearless toil.  Inside it life will be a paradise.  Let the floods rage and mount to the dune’s brink.  No sooner will they nibble at it, threaten it, than all as one man run to stop the gap.   Now I am wholly of this philosophy.  This is the farthest human wisdom goes:  The man who earns his freedom every day, alone deserves it, and no other does.   And, in this sense, with dangers at our door, we all, young folk and old, shall live our lives.  Oh how I’d love to see that lusty throng and stand on a free soil with a free people.  Now I could almost say to the passing moment: Stay, oh stay a while, you are so beautiful.   The mark of my endeavors will not fade.  No, not in ages, not in any time.  Dreaming of this incomparable happiness, I now taste and enjoy the supreme moment.”

Nothing was more beautiful to Faust than the notion of ubiquitous human freedom.   And when I take that vision and flesh it out, the result is a world in which self-expression is unleashed to the point where it becomes the norm, not an outlier that requires exceptional courage, and perhaps also exceptional talent, in order to thrive.  What I’m describing seems utopian.   But it is precisely the kind of utopian dream we need if we as a species are to attain our potential.

It is not enough to see self-expression as the domain of so-called “artists” who indulge themselves while the rest of us live in thrall to the narrowly defined roles to which our societies assign us.  Self-respect, self-confidence, and self-expression should be seen as our birthrights – not things we must earn by winning competitions.  Without them, we will not know peace, we will enjoy little freedom, and most importantly, neither we, nor anyone else, will know ourselves.

This weekend, as we celebrate the beginning of the Passover season, we are directed to contemplate freedom and bondage.  And to do so, we are asked to look forward in time as well as behind.  Yes, we speak about how our ancestors were slaves in ancient Egypt, which means that metaphorically if not literally, we too were slaves in Egypt, and we must have compassion for all who are slaves today -- because there, but for the grace of God, go we.  Indeed, it is not enough to have compassion for those who live in bondage; we must act to unchain them.  Otherwise, we will have to atone on Yom Kippur for sins of omission, which are no less profound than sins of commission. 

But it is also not enough to think about the past, or even to lament and strive to change the present.  We must look ahead.   And that is why on every Seder we sing Eliyahu Hanavie.   In English, it can be translated as follows:  Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Stranger, Elijah the Giladite, may he come speedily to us in our days along with the Messiah the son of David. 

We sing that song about Elijah.  And we leave a glass for Elijah.  But do we so primarily as a cry out for the one who it is prophesied that Elijah will bring: the Messiah.  Whether you believe the Messiah is a real human being or just a metaphorical construct, this figure is one of the most blessed in all of Judaism.  We are told that after the Messiah comes, our descendants “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” 

I would never try to improve upon Isaiah.  But I dare say that after the Messiah comes, we will see a world founded on the principle envisioned by Goethe, through his Faust.  Perhaps we all don’t need to be truly free in order to live in a world beyond war, but believe me, there is no better antidote to war – or the suffering and injustice that leads to war -- than freedom.  

Many Passover songs are sung only during the Seders.   But for many traditional Jews, Eliyahu Hanavie is sung literally every week at the conclusion of the Jewish Sabbath.  That fact underscores the song’s importance.  When we leave the pleasant confines of the Shabbat to return to the stresses of the work week, we need to dress ourselves in what is truly holy: namely, our love for God and our hope for a Messianic future.  In that future, it will not be enough for soldiers to stop killing people’s bodies or slavers to stop killing people’s dignity, but we ourselves must stop killing our own aspirations to create, to adore, and to dream.    

You don’t have to live 3200 years ago to experience slavery in Egypt.  And you don’t have to live literally in bondage to experience a lack of freedom.   Until the Messianic age, freedom will always be the exception, not the norm.  In fact, one of the key differences between us and the Hebrew slaves in Egypt is that they realized that they did not know freedom, whereas we fool ourselves into thinking the contrary.   Spinoza was no fool.  I suspect he wasn’t fully free either, and he knew it. 

Allow me to conclude with a famous story about an 18th century Hasidic Rabbi named Zusha of Anipoli.   As the story goes, he was crying on his deathbed while his disciples surrounded him, and nothing anyone said could comfort him.  “Why do you cry,” they asked him, “You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.”   Zusha’s response is priceless:  “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham?’ Rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential? Why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine?”

Why wasn’t he Zusha?  Because the Messiah hadn’t come yet.   And from what I can tell, he’s not hanging around us either.  It remains our job to do whatever is possible to usher in his arrival, or her arrival, or their arrival, rather than expecting miracles from above.  There is no better time to start then at the beginning of Passover. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Bernie and Hillary Confront the Israel-Palestine Conflict

I hope by now that you all have either seen, or read a transcript of, the portion of Thursday night’s Democratic Presidential debaterelating to the Israel-Palestine (I-P) conflict.  (The relevant portion is close to the end.)

Thursday’s I-P discussion between Bernie and Hillary is a microcosm of a battle that has been raging in the American-Jewish community for many years.    Both sides don’t simply show confidence in their own perspective; they behave as if theirs is the only sane approach.   This disagreement has been reflected in the existence of two groups, AIPAC and J-Street, whose disagreements are always far more in focus than their agreements.   Whereas AIPAC is focused on criticizing the behavior of Palestinians, Iranians and other so-called enemies of Israel, J-Street is almost exclusively devoted to criticizing the behavior of Jewish-Israelis.  In this debate, Hillary played the part of a mainstream AIPAC member and Bernie acted the part of a mainstream J-Street member.  If I didn’t know better, I would swear that they were on these organizations’ respective payrolls. 

Of the two statements, Bernie’s  has been garnering far more attention.   That’s because the American public is not used to hearing the J-Street party line embraced on such a large political stage.  By contrast, Hillary’s words were old-hat and politically safe.  She paid a modicum of lip service to the idea that Israel should be fair to the Palestinians, recognize that they have “rights” and deserve autonomy, and take at least some precautions when its military responds to Palestinian attacks.  But none of those were points of emphasis in her statement.  Her central message was clear: the Palestinians have repeatedly initiated violent attacks, Israel has every right to defend itself from these attacks, the Americans handed the Palestinians an opportunity for peace and autonomy but the Palestinians didn’t take it, and the Israelis handed the Palestinians an opportunity for a prosperous economy but the Palestinians rejected that too and created a “terrorist haven” in its place.

Nobody can accuse Hillary of saying one thing at the AIPAC conference and another at a nationally televised debate.  Her statement on Thursday would have fit in quite well at AIPAC, believe me.  And indeed, it likely sealed a double-digit win in the New York primary and, accordingly, ended any credible argument that Bernie Sanders could take the nomination.    Politics-as-usual usually wins.
Hillary’s purportedly pro-Palestinian comments in her statement reminded me of how she and her political allies dealt with the Monika Lewinsky scandal late in her husband’s presidency.  Inevitably, they would preface their statements with something like, “Of course, we don’t condone the President’s conduct.  Of course we think that sort of behavior has no place in American society, least of all in the Oval Office.”  And then they would immediately pivot away from such thoughts and launch into a five or ten minute impassioned discourse decrying the vast right-wing conspiracy.  In essence, what Hillary did on Thursday was to insert a bit of “balance” as a rhetorical device – to demonstrate that she is a reasonable person.  But her fundamental goal should not be hard to discern:  she was courting Jewish and other pro-Israeli voters.  Given the primary in which she was competing, that is truly a target rich environment.

And that is precisely what makes Bernie’s statement so fascinating on so many levels.    You see, he did EXACTLY the opposite of what Hillary did, and he did it in New York City: aka “Hymietown,” to use the immortal words of another leftist politician, Jesse Jackson.  Bernie devoted most of his statement to talking about Palestinians’ rights and legitimate grievances, and he did so with the same passion that Hillary brought to her pro-Israeli claims.    He also used the rhetorical device of purporting to show “balance” – in his case, his use of balance was to express that he believes that Israel has a right to defend itself, and to “live in peace and security.”  But did you notice how he began his nod to Israeli rights?  Bernie said that “of course” Israel has those rights.  And indeed, he must have understood that he said nothing that is the least bit controversial or interesting on behalf of Israel.  He did not even use coded words like acknowledging that he is a “Zionist” or that he supports the existence of a “Jewish State.”  I would have no idea after reading Bernie’s statement what his vision of a peaceful, stable Israel would look like. Would it be majority Jewish in 50 years?   Would it discriminate in favor of Jewish people from an immigration standpoint?  

And before I praise Bernie’s statement – providing more than just the lip service that he gave in perfunctorily affirming Israel’s rights – allow me to remind everyone that Bernie is a Jewish person who would probably rather talk about his hemorrhoids than his membership in the Tribe.  (Come to think of it, most of us Jews are disposed to talk about stuff like our hemorrhoids, but that is another issue altogether.)   His unwillingness to publicly embrace his Jewish roots, let alone his Judaism, is extremely off-putting to me, and while I won’t hold that against him at the ballot box, it could largely explain why Hillary is polling 32 points ahead of him among Democratic Jews in New York.

Anyway, while I am virtually as far to the right of J-Street as I am to the left of AIPAC, Bernie’s statement nonetheless appealed to me in large part not because of what he said about Israel but because of what he said about the Palestinians.   He spoke about the need to treat them with respect and dignity, something that outside of the interfaith movement seems to be a minority view.  He spoke about the Gazan unemployment rate and how the rest of the world needs to help the Palestinian people rebuild the economy there, something that seems to be the furthest thing from the mind of most non-Palestinians.  And he spoke about the value of the United States of America playing “an even-handed role [in] trying to bring people together and recognizing the serious problems that exist among the Palestinian people [which] is what ... the world wants us to do and ... the kind of leadership that we have got to exercise.”   That comment is so far outside of the mainstream that when Donald Trump said something similar, it was used by his Republican rivals as an example of how Trump is crazy and not pro-Israel.

Bernie showed a lot of courage in advancing Palestinian claims in a place like New York.  He is absolutely right that to be truly pro-Israel, and not merely pro-status quo, we must also be pro-Palestinian.   We Jews in particular must embrace Palestinians as first cousins and not vilify them as enemies.   When I founded the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, I did so not only because I am fascinated by Islam but also because I desperately want a just peace in the Holy Land and I don’t believe that such peace is possible unless the two peoples can come together and embrace both what unifies us and what divides us.  Like Bernie, I am a two-state guy.  And also like Bernie, I care deeply about what the Palestinian state would look like, and not only because of its implications for Israel but also because the Palestinian and the Jewish people are neighbors and neighbors must care for each other.

Yet the fact remains that I refuse to condone the imbalance of Bernie’s words any more than I condone the imbalance of Hillary’s.  I would much rather blame Israel for how it has colonized the West Bank than for how it has bombed Gaza.    Gaza is indeed a terrorist haven, Israel does have a right to self-defense, and I for one do not possess enough facts to blast Israel for “disproportionate” violence.   Does Bernie know more than I do?  Well let’s just say that it was only a fortnight ago when he was publicly blaming Israel for 10,000 Gazan deaths, when in fact the true number was only a fraction of that figure.  This is not the kind of mistake you tend to make if you are truly pro-Israel, as he claims to be.   Nor do you, as Bernie did, appoint a woman to be your liaison to the Jewish community who has publicly said “Fuck you, Bibi.”  Fortunately, Bernie withdrew that uninspired appointment, but the damage was done to his “pro-Israel” cred.  

It is all too easy to demonize the players when it comes to the I-P Conflict.  It feels just so comfy here in America to look down our noses at those savage Palestinians and those primitive Israelis.  But let me remind everyone what kind of “disproportionate” carnage the United States wrought in response to the 9/11 attacks, and what kind of violence Americans have perpetrated over the centuries in response to racial and economic injustices.   As my Christian cousins would say, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

This is why we have to be very sensitive when we talk about these issues.  We have to be largely balanced, and not simply wear the jerseys of the right (AIPAC) or the left (J-Street).   We have to internalize the narratives of the Jews and the Palestinians.  And while it is inevitable that many of us, myself included, will feel one of those narratives closer to our heart, we must always remember that we are talking about a family conflict, not a war between natural enemies.   Ultimately, we must come together and support our kin, much as brothers Esau and Jacob embraced, or as Isaac and Ishmael united to bury their father.   This will only be possible if we work jointly now on initiatives that align Jew and Muslim, Arab and Israeli, progressive and conservative.  

So, in the name of burying the hatchet, let me just say that whereas I might not have been impressed by the extent of the balance shown by Hillary or Bernie, I can at least recognize that both did give a nod to the universality of rights, the dignity of all human beings, and the hope of peace.  That’s a hell of a place to start.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Confessions of a Middle-Aged Golf Fan

There was a time in my childhood when I would watch virtually any competition on TV.   Game shows?  Check.  Bowling?  Check.  Auto racing?  Check.  Basketball, hockey, tennis, baseball, football ...?  Hell yes.   Golf?   Sorry, but no.   We all have to draw the line somewhere.

Maybe there was no one thing that turned my stomach when it came to golf.  Maybe it was a combination of indignation and boredom.  On the indignation side, I was turned off by golf’s association with uber-wealthy fans, a lily-white field of competitors, and country clubs that banned women from becoming members.   On the boredom side, what do I need to say?  What is more boring to an American kid than listening to middle-aged Brits from privileged backgrounds whisper about slightly younger men from equally privileged backgrounds as they prepare to roll a ball into a hole.  Give me a vicious boxing match any time over that soporific time suck.

But now?  I guess I’ve become an old white man.  There’s no other explanation for the fact that I’ve become a big-time golf fan.

Now please don’t ask the next question: “Do you play?”  Of course I don’t play.  That would involve spending more time than is necessary outside of buildings.  It would also involve freely spending money on frivolities.   Candidly, I have whacked at balls on a golf course a number of times over the last decade, but never more than two or three times a year and never did I buy clubs.  So I think I can legitimately say that I’m a golf fan who is not a golf player.  And yes, I realize that this would make me sound insane to many people, including many of my own person-stages.

The truth is that I was swept up in that craze of the last two decades known as “Tiger Mania.”  But even after Tiger revealed himself to be “human, all-too-human,” I have maintained interest in the sport he played at the highest level.   Watching it on TV relaxes me.  And sadly, the more ancient I get, the more I appreciate the value of relaxation.  But golf isn’t just relaxing – there is a certain affirming quality to it that I don’t find in too many places.  Yes, it’s a competition, but the competition doesn’t so much pit one gladiator against another but each gladiator against Mother Nature herself – which makes it hard to get mad at any of the competitors.   Yesterday, at the Masters, the winds began to howl, and the players began to fold.   It’s hard enough to hit a ball when there’s no wind, but on a windy day, the sport is more about surviving than thriving.  And indeed, the man who is now leading the tournament was playing far worse than par during the latter part of his round.  Watching a round like that, you marvel at the accomplishments of any of the competitors, but it doesn’t pain you when they falter either, because Mother Nature isn’t your enemy.  She’s just part of the equation.

And here’s the other great thing about watching golf:  you can root for the best player (i.e., the favorite) and not feel like a jerk.  That’s because no matter how good that player is – even if his name is Tiger Woods in his prime – he’s still expected to lose.  In other words, every time a superstar begins a tournament, he is virtually always the underdog, and the favorite is “the field” (i.e., everyone else).  That’s not true in most team sports.  And it’s not even always true in an individual sport like tennis or track and field, where certain superstars are truly dominant.   In golf, there are so many funny bounces and other sources of unpredictability that the best player still has an uphill struggle at the beginning of every tournament.  So you can feel free to root for him and revel in his “upset” victory over lesser players.  That’s pretty cool.

Honestly, I don’t know how much time I’ll have to watch golf this weekend, even though it’s the first major tournament of the year, but what I do know is that I’ll enjoy what I do watch – and that’s the last thing I would have said in my teens or even in my 20s.   I still get annoyed by the all the commercials for how to invest your retirement assets or what to do if your penis stops working.  But hey, I never thought I’d get anything out of watching the golf itself.  Someday, I might even find value in watching the commercials.