Monday, September 30, 2002
I'm as nervous as everyone else about this ridiculous diplomatic dance about inspectors going back to Iraq. But I do wonder about one thing: does Hans Blix realize he's just started the clock? I mean, if he claims to have a date for going back in, with full access, and that date doesn't materialize, I mean, we've got a launch date for the war, right?
Not that we need such a thing, but as long as we're doing the dance, I might as well speculate about the steps.
Very briefly: in traditional Judaism, gay male sexual relationships are viewed as anathema, whereas lesbian sexual relationships are characterized as "mere lewdness." We can talk about whether such anathematizing is appropriate another time. But I think it is a sign of real insight into human sexuality that male and female homosexuality are treated as pretty much totally different phenomena. Evidence: can you imagine this story about "hasbians" (lesbians who go straight) being written about men? The question answers itself.
The Torch is officially OUT.
Don't you get the feeling that there's a real house-cleaning going on? The loonies and the scum are being tossed overboard. Cynthia McKinney, Robert Torricelli - if you need an example on the other side of the aisle, Bob Smith - the voters don't seem interested in these kinds of antics anymore. It's a pattern that started, I would argue, with the New York City mayoral election just after September 11. The voters seem ready to punish criminal or obscene behavior, rather than treat it as an eccentricity. They want serious leaders who will do what needs to be done. They're not punishing people with ideas or ideological convictions. But they are punishing people who just don't seem to be taking this whole business sufficiently seriously.
Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I think the main race this trend bodes well for is Minnesota's Senate race. I'd bet money on a Sanford governorship in South Carolina as well. We'll see soon enough, anyhow.
Well, I think I can confidently predict that this item will make Jay Nordlinger's next Impromptus don't you think?
Cato used to begin every speech with the cry: "Carthago delenda est!" He's not the only one, but I would single out Stanley Kurtz for modern Cato-hood, for repeating himself tirelessly, eloquently and with absolute clarity on the need to eliminate the Iraqi regime.
Wednesday, September 25, 2002
In the Jewish division of the Bible, there are three major sections.
The first five books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - are the Torah. The next set of books are known as the Prophets. These books include the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II, Kings I and II, and the prophetic books both major (Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah) and minor (the twelve other prophets). The last set of books are known as the Writings. These include the Psalms and Proverbs, the book of Job, the book of Daniel, the late historical books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, and the five megillot.
These five books are read as part of the service at each of the three pilgrimage festivals and at the two most important rabbinic holidays of the Jewish calendar, holidays that relate to events recorded in the relevant megillah. The five megillot are: Esther (read on Purim, which celebrates the foiling of Haman's genocidal plans recorded in the Book of Esther), the Song of Songs (read on Passover), Ruth (read on Shavuot, or Pentecost), Lamentations (read on the Ninth of Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple, the tragedy lamented in the Book of Lamentations), and Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes (read this season, on Sukkot).
The last is the surprise of the list. All the other megillot are read at times that "make sense" in terms of the holiday. Esther is about Purim; Lamentations is about the 9th of Av. The Song of Songs is a love song between G-d and Israel, appropriate for the Festival of Freedom; Ruth is a story of betrothal to the laws of Israel, appropriate to the Festival of Receiving the Torah. But Sukkot is the Festival of Joy. Why should we read Ecclesiastes, that least joyful of books?
I must admit, I've never been crazy about Ecclesiastes. It's one of my least favorite books of the Bible. And in some ways it doesn't even feel Jewish. The emphasis on the futility of action, the cyclicality of time, the need to make peace with the world: these are not the themes sounded in Exodus, or Deuteronomy, or Isaiah, or even Jeremiah or Job (both of which I adore).
But every now and again, dissonance seems right. This year, right before Rosh Hashanah, we brought home our first child, Moses. It was a singular joy for me that Moses had three great-grandparents present at his circumcision. How many children are so lucky? Now, during Sukkot, the Season of our Joy, that company has been reduced to two. Truly there is a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to laugh and a time to cry, and sometimes it is the same time.
When a loved one dies, we are to say: baruch dayan emet, blessed is the righteous judge. There is great merit in acknowledging G-d's justice at a time of trial. But it seems to me, when a man lives to 90 years old, lives to see his first great-grandson, and, when his time comes, is surrounded by his family, and leaves the earth without lingering long to suffer, truly, to say that G-d is a righteous judge in such circumstances is to do great honor to the departed. For few among us will merit so much.
Monday, September 23, 2002
And finally, some brief thoughts on the German election.
First, it's clear to me that one reason that Schroeder won was that he took a strong stance on something, and in a context where he appeared to be acting patriotically. In that sense, his stance on Iraq meshed with the image he projected during the floods. The message, basically, was: I will take care of you, Germany. I care, and I care about you first of all. And I won't be distracted from my primary task by the demands of these arrogant Americans - or even those of the United Nations. The fact that he specifically said he would not support war against Iraq even if the U.N. did underscores this fact. Many commentators have pointed out that Germany has done itself enormous diplomatic harm by taking such a hard anti-war line. Germany has disrupted a common EU foreign policy, damaged its bid to be a permanent Security Council member, and undermined the crucial relationship with the United States, and all for nothing since German intransigence will have no impact on the American decision. But while completely true, all this commentary misses the point: that is precisely what the Germans liked about Schroeder's stance. Germans were voting to tell the world: we are tired of hearing of your problems. We have problems of our own. Please go away. It was a vote precisely against responsibility and good global or European citizenship, which the Germans are probably up to here with. I'm not saying this to excuse the German electorate; I think it's pathetic. And, given the importance of the German domestic front in the war on terror, it's a serious problem going forward. But I think that's why it played so well (and it did play well; Stoiber was supposed to win this one in a walk): not because the Germans are so anti-American but because they want to go back to bed and leave the responsibilities of global governance to others.
Second, it's clear that the biggest victors in the election were not the SPD but the Greens, and the biggest losers not the CDU/CSU but the Free Democrats and the PDS. That, in itself, is somewhat promising and somewhat disappointing. The Free Democrats have a history of being the sort of party we'd all hope would do better: they're pro-market and pro-American, historically. But they have been flirting with anti-Semitism, or at least anti-Israel politics, in order to court the Muslim vote (such as it is; most German-resident Muslims are non-citizens), and this appears to have backfired. The sorts of people who would vote for an anti-Israel party are not the sorts of people who are likely to vote for the rest of the Free Democrat agenda, so the message made little sense and turned voters off. On the other hand, it's likely that the lack of enthusiasm for the FDs also reflects a lack of enthusiasm for economic liberalism, which is unfortunate since one of the things Germany needs if it is to get out of its rut is more competition, particularly in the labor market. The rise of the Greens is also equivocal. On the one hand, these guys are loony-left. On the other hand, they are the least loony of the loony-left parties in Europe. The Greens have participated in the German government successfully. They are not really more extreme than Labor backbenchers, or certainly than the Liberal Democrats. And they are not, generally, in the same league as the French lunatic fringe parties. Joschka Fischer, the Green foreign minister, supported German involvement in the Kossovo war and supported the war in Afghanistan. He has been strongly against war in Iraq; okay. But he remains the most interesting left-wing leader in Europe (I do not count Tony Blair as left-wing, precisely), and he has been instrumental in bringing to the Greens some measure of responsibility. It's a problem, certainly, that a purportedly anti-NATO and radical-environmentalist party would do so well in Germany. But the actual behavior of the Greens in power has been somewhat different from what you'd think, and it may be better to have the Greens forced to take the responsibility of power than to have them grow in strength without that responsibility. Had the CDU-CSU won the election, and the Greens done well at the expense of the SPD, that might have been more problematic long-term. As for the fall of the PDS, it is of course an unmitigated positive: without seats, the party could dwindle further, which would only be to the good, given the Communist origins of the party.
Third, and finally, the contrast with the recent elections in France is instructive. The French in the first round of Presidential voting opted for a collection of kooks and crazies, and wound up giving the citizenry a choice between a crooked Gaullist and a hard-right Algerian war nostalgist. And then, the citizenry seemed to sober up, suddenly. They voted Chirac in, of course, but by much wider margins than expected. And then they gave him a Parliament, ending the "cohabitation" that had caused French politics to freeze up. And they voted for a center-right that had begun to tackle the problems of competitiveness and immigration that were previously being swept under the rug. It's just a bare beginning, but it's something. And the realism continues: the French have become increasingly supportive of America's war aims, not because they are eager to see the extension of American influence, but because they realistically understand that a good relationship with America is more important than a good relationship with South Africa, and they want to protect that influence. The French, in other words, splashed cold water on their own faces and started to wake up. By contrast, the Germans rolled over and put the pillow over their heads to try to fall back asleep. It's too soon to know if either of these presage a trend. But if they do, the trend is: within Europe, France rising, Germany sinking.
Well, this is actually news: four Israeli far-right parties are considering running on a unified slate. Why is this news? Because Israel is back on the old one-ballot proportional rep law as of the next election. No more splitting ballots for Prime Minister from ballots for the Knesset, which encouraged the growth of small, single-issue parties in the past. If a solid bloc is forming on the right, that means three things: (1) Likud becomes the clear centrist party in the Knesset; (2) the right has a better chance of winning substantial representation (no dilution from the competition of multiple voices); which in turn means (3) that Likud is not going to get the solid right-wing votes it needs for a massive Knesset victory; all of which means (4) that Sharon is going to have an interesting choice to make post-election.
I think it's safe to say that Likud will be the largest party in the next Knesset. But if there is a 20-seat party to its right (the combined slates of National Union, National Religious, Yisrael Beiteinu and Moledet, which currently number 13 seats but are surely going to gain, particularly if they run together), then Likud will probably get less than 40 seats itself. Now it has to form a coalition. Likud plus the ultra-Orthodox parties might constitute a government. But now it needs another party. Will it be a unified far-right party? That would have serious negative diplomatic consequences, given that this party will likely run on a platform of "transfer." The alternative, however, is Labor, which will surely get fewer than 20 seats in the next Knesset but will still be a reasonably large party, probably the #3 party in the Knesset after Likud and the right-wing slate. Choosing Labor would pull Likud further to the left, and strengthen both the far-left (since many Labor voters will be disgusted by the continuity of the coalition with Likud and Shas, and will bolt for Meretz or Shinui) and the far-right (who will lead the opposition).
A lot can happen between now and the next elections, of course. The Iraqi campaign could change the whole map of the region, for example. But barring a dramatic change in the landscape, I'd say that a union of the right would do quite well, would result in a clear identification of Likud as the mainstream party, would likely result in another Likud-Labor-Shas coalition and the further disintegration of Labor as a party, and will set things up for the NEXT election as a right-wing referendum. Because if a united far-right is out of power, and things go badly on the security front, they will, for the first time, have the opportunity to take a serious case to the Israeli voter that radical solutions are called for.
I wonder how many Hebrew University professors understand all that.
By the way, I do not think that Yisrael B'Aliyah will run on a united slate with the likes of Moledet. I think it's far more likely that they will run on a united slate with Likud.
The other interesting by-the-way is what Shas does. They risk a major loss of votes in the next election, because their current representation is way out of proportion to the actual number of Sephardi ultra-Orthodox in Israel. They get all this extra support because they are a populist, "ethnic" party that delivers for their voters, and because in the last election there was a groundswell of support for then-party leader Arieh Deri in the context of his trial on corruption charges. None of these factors will be primary in the next election. So what will Shas do when the date comes around? What kind of arrangement might they work out with Likud, for example, to assure a significant role for the party in exchange for unqualified support for the government on the government's top objectives? Watch these two tigers, Likud and Shas, circling each other warily as we approach the election date: each has a strong incentive to convince their voters that, on the one hand, they are natural coalition partners, but on the other hand that voting for the "wrong" of the two parties would be a tragic mistake that would hurt the country.
Let us now praise a couple of famous men that we rarely had call to praise before: Alan M. Dershowitz, and Larry Summers. Inasmuch as Harvard represents elite America to the world, Summers is actually looking to be a huge home run for America. He definitely wins the prize for my favorite ex-Clinton Administration official, Dick Holbrooke being the runner-up.
Okay, y'all can stop laughing and pointing fingers: I know I screwed up. My Shabbat Sukkot post referenced the wrong text. I looked up the text for Shabbat Sukkot. But you only read that text on an intermediate Shabbat. If Shabbat falls on one of the first two days, you read the usual text for the first two days, not the text for Shabbat Sukkot. Next time, I'll check a reliable luach (calendar).
Friday, September 20, 2002
NRO pointed me to this very interesting and, frankly horrifying site: SkyscraperPage.com. There are some beautiful buildings out there, but I was hard-pressed to find any under construction or proposed. Mostly it's a parade of hideous ugliness.
And, apropos of yesterday's post about naming Israel's current war, a friend writes that the Arab side as much as the Israeli has no clear goals in mind. I understand his point: certainly the war has achieved no goals in terms of territory or statehood or a better life for the Palestinian people. And it seems clear that those among the Palestinian leadership who care about such things are having second thoughts about the war they launched. But that doesn't mean the war had no objectives, or that none of them are being achieved. Nor is the Palestinian leadership Israel's only enemy in the current war. I think the various actors on the scene mostly have pretty clear and logical objectives, but they don't all line up perfectly. Here's my rundown of the principal Arab and Muslim powers involved in the conflict, state and non-state actors, and what I think their war aims are:
FATAH: Long-term goal is to establish a Palestinian state in all of Israel and Jordan. Short-term goal is to avoid either the explicit renunciation of the long-term goal or the surrender of important material sources of power (e.g. the existence of the P.A. and its security forces). To that end, the current terror war's purpose is to achieve an official Israeli withdrawal from most or all of the territories, in exchange for no substantive concessions in terms of Palestinian power or ultimate claims. This objective has not been met, but the war isn't over yet; if Chaim Ramon's unilateral separation plan is put into effect, Fatah will have achieved essentially all of its war aims. In addition, note that the current war has been named successfully by Fatah: it's called the al-Aqsa Intifadah. That name expresses very clear goals: the liberation/conquest of Jerusalem. Even if that goal is not attained by war - and it's not clear to me to what extent Arafat ever expected Israel to fold that easily - the establishment of Jerusalem as a war objective, and tying that to the "intifadah," a term that is presumptively self-justifying in much of the world the way "national liberation" was in the 1970s, serves Fatah's interests, because that objective can be a nationalist rallying cry to carry the war forward from whatever base of support they have left when the war is over.
HAMAS: Long-term goal is to establish an Islamist state in all of Israel and Jordan. Short-term goal is simply to derail any possible settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would provide its domestic opponents (the PLO) with a stable power base. Given Fatah's current goals, there is no real conflict between Fatah and Hamas, which has facilitated cooperation. If Fatah moves clearly to a posture of strategic retreat - accepting a cease-fire in exchange for a state in Gaza, for example, with no peace and no end to the conflict - then those goals will diverge eventually, and probably sooner rather than later.
HIZBALLAH: Long-term goal is to establish effective control of all of Greater Syria under an Islamist regime: Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Short-term goal is to build on its propaganda and material success in driving Israel out of Lebanon; successful terrorist attacks win it allies in all of its target countries. Hizballah is playing a long-term game and doing very well, and alone among the terrorist groups now at war with Israel it does not care what the end-game is in the territories, because it does not have a presence on the ground there. It is also actively cooperating with al-Qaeda and Iraq as well as with its patron, Iran, and has thereby linked its regional struggle for power with a larger war within the Islamic world to overthrow existing regimes and establish an anti-Western Islamic Empire.
JORDAN: Long-term goal is to secure the survival of the regime and establish the Hashemites as the protectors of Jerusalem. Short-term goal is to avoid falling to an Iraqi invasion, or a Palestinian revolution, or coming into conflict with the Americans. Jordan does not actively support the terrorist war against Israel. Jordan was deeply threatened by the establishment of the P.A. and by the current war, which is defined by Arafat as a war for Jerusalem, a city that the Hashemites see as part of their sphere of influence. Jordan would be very happy to see the end of the P.A., but it cannot overtly act to undermine it for fear of a domestic uprising. Jordan's policy is therefore to stay as quiet as possible and wait in the wings for an opportunity to reassert a formal role in Jerusalem specifically.
EGYPT: Long-term goal is domination of its immediate region and establishment as America's most (or only) important regional ally. This requires emasculating Israel's power to the greatest degree possible without direct conflict. To that end, Egypt's short-term goal in 2000 was to prevent an Israeli-Palestinian settlement that would help further integrate Israel into the region; Mubarak at the time advised Arafat against signing a deal. Now, however, Egypt's short-term goal is keeping a lid on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without a decisive settlement, since a large regional war would threaten Egypt's interests as much as peace. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the two powers with the greatest interest in an internationally imposed solution that would restrict Iraeli power and sovereignty and put an international force in the territories, because both governments are willing to cooperate with the West, both governments want to avoid general war and upheaval, and both governments are hostile to Israel.
IRAQ: Long-term goal is dominant leadership of the Arab world as a whole. Short-term goal is to avoid destruction by the Americans. Support of the Palestinians in their terror war serves both long-term and short-term goals, in that Iraq wins allies in the Arab world and distracts the world's - and America's - attention from Iraq to the Middle East. Further, alliances with the Palestinian terrorist groups provide Iraq with a delivery mechanism for massively destructive attacks against Israel, attacks which would precipitate a larger regional war. Because America seeks to avoid such a war, the possibility of such attacks act as a deterrent to American action against Iraq.
SAUDI ARABIA: Long-term goal is dominant leadership of the Arab world as a whole. Short-term goal is to avoid either overthrow by domestic Islamist opponents or permanent rupture of the relationship with America. Saudi Arabia's support of the Palestinian terrorist war serves the regime's long-term interest and the short-term interest of appeasing those who would overthrow the regime, but it poses risks to the relationship with America. Saudi Arabia's policy is, I think, very short-term oriented and schizo, because the regime's basis of support is now in contradiction with itself.
IRAN: Long-term goal is to become a great power on a world scale and leader of the Islamic world, decisively replacing Saudi Arabia as the Islamic center of gravity. Short-term goal is to avoid falling to internal or external enemies. As with Iraq, Iran has a policy of supporting terrorism in order to curry favor with Muslim masses worldwide. But Iran is also supporting these groups because, if they achieve their objectives, they will be powerful Iranian allies. The key group is Hizballah, but Hamas also receives support. The Iranian regime is well aware of its domestic unpopularity and its vulnerabilities. But if it achieves major objectives internationally - either directly through terrorist warfare or indirectly by cowing Western powers into appeasement - it knows these achievements will help bolster the regime. Iran will cooperate tactically in the West to remove mutual enemies, like the Taliban or the Iraqi regime. But it will not cooperate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or anywhere where Western objectives do not dovetail with Iranian objectives.
SYRIA: Syria is a strange case because it is not obvious to me that Bashar Assad is behaving rationally in his regime's self-interest. All the other countries and organizations involved seem to me to have a concrete and rational plan. The plan may be evil, but it is not crazy, even in the case of Iraq. But I'm not sure that's the case for Syria. Assad appears to be very immature, and to have become fixated on Sheik Nasrallah of Hizballah as a kind of father/guru figure. An argument can be made that Syria is now to some extent a Hizballah puppet, to a lesser degree but in much the way that Afghanistan was an al-Qaeda puppet. Attacking America was a very stupid thing for an Afghan government to do, but a very sensible thing for al-Qaeda to do. So the fact that al-Qaeda was allowed to plot the attacks from Afghanistan suggests that the Afghan regime was less interested in survival than in serving the goals of al-Qaeda. I think something similar is going on in Syria now, or at least in its President. Hizballah is actively trying to provoke a regional war, a war that would be devastating to Syria. But it's not clear that Assad totally cares, or understands that that would be the consequence. Israel is operating very carefully in the North because it does not want a regional war either, but it is hard to see how any Syrian objective is served by Hizballah's provocations, which continue to get more serious, and will likely become extremely serious when war erupts in Iraq. I worry enormously about the Northern front precisely because of this element of irrationality on Syria's part.
A short update on my earlier post on deterrence. It's been pointed out to me that you can't deter a nuclear terrorist, and that's what's different about the post-September-11 world versus the world of the Cold War. True enough. Terrorists do not have conventional objectives; the infliction of damage to a great extent is their objective. For a terrorist, New York is a much better target than the Sixth Fleet.
How does that change my argument? To the extent that terrorists need to get their nukes from states, it doesn't. States will only deliver those weapons if it serves their objectives. Now we're back in the world of warfighting. A terrorist is effectively a delivery mechanism, not fundamentally different from a bomb or a missile. A state can be deterred from dealing with terrorists if it thinks doing so will not achieve its objectives but bring down the full might of the United States on its head. That's, indeed, a major reason we need to destroy the Iraqi regime: to make that point clear. To the extent that terrorists can acquire or develop nuclear weapons without state sponsorship, however, we're in another universe, and the response has to be twofold: eliminating the terrorists and eliminating the security problems (such as in the former Soviet Union) that make acquisition by terrorists of nuclear weapons on the black market a realistic scenario. But this is also not a "new world" in that terrorists have never been subject to deterrence. They don't need a nuclear equalizer to do things that, if done by a state, would result in massive retaliation and a frustration of the state's aims - such as, for example, massacring civilians. Weapons of mass destruction will not change terrorist behavior; they will only change terrorist capabilities, and the elimination of terrorist organizations becomes much more imperative if they are capable of acquiring these new capabilities.
My point is still: if nuclear deterrence worked in, for example, the India/Pakistan standoff earlier this year, it's not because India was afraid Pakistan would destroy India physically if it attacked, but because nuclear weapons made it possible for Pakistan to deny India a military victory - among other things, Pakistan could vaporize an invading Indian army. That's nuclear warfighting, and nuclear warfighting is the proper framework, generally, for talking about deterrence, not the notion of mutually-assured destruction.
UPDATE: after writing the below, I read Rav Shlomo Riskin's weekly Torah discussion, which this week is about the conjunction of Shabbat and Sukkot. It's better than what I wrote, so read him if you only have time for one piece.
UPDATE #2: Okay, okay, I know: I screwed up. The text I write about below is NOT the text we read on Shabbat of Sukkot IF Shabbat falls on one of the first two days. We ONLY read the text below on Shabbat of one of the INTERMEDIATE days of Sukkot. So sue me.
Okay, so yesterday was Thursday, and I didn't get around to writing about the weekly parshah. Well, I have an excuse: this week there is no weekly parshah. This Shabbat coincides with the beginning of Sukkot, as the Shabbat two weeks ago coincided with Rosh ha-Shanah, and the reading for Shabbat morning is a section of parshat Ki Tisa. Which, I'm sure you all recall, is one of the serious Cecil B. DeMille parshiyot, the one with the Golden Calf in it.
The particular section read on this Shabbat starts a little later on. (The section runs from Exodus 33:12 through 34:26.) Moses, after the sin of the Golden Calf, seeks reassurance from G-d that He will go with him as he leads the people through the desert. Ultimately, he asks to see G-d's presence. G-d says no, saying that no living man may see His "face," but that he will reveal his "back." What follows is a selection that should be very familiar from the Yom Kippur liturgy, as it is repeated several times over the course of the day:
Va-yered HASHEM be-'anan, va-yityatzeiv 'imo sham, ya-yikra be-sheim HASHEM. Va-ya'avor HASHEM al panav va-yikra: HASHEM, HASHEM, El rachum ve-chanun, erekh apayim ve-rav chesed ve-emet; notzeir chesed la-alaphim, nosei avon v-phesha' ve-chatah ve-naqeih . . .
And G-d descended upon a cloud, and stood there with Him, and He cried out in the Lord's name. And G-d passed before his face and He proclaimed: The Lord, the Lord, merciful and compassionate G-d, slow to anger and full of kindness and truth; He remembers deeds of lovingkindness for thousands [of years, or generations], forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin . . .
(As an aside: There's some ambiguity in the Hebrew, where the subject of a sentence is typically not named. Does G-d stand with Moses or Moses with G-d? Does G-d proclaim his own name, or does Moses? The traditional understanding is that G-d is doing the proclaiming, but the language does support the opposite interpretation.)
The text goes on to the establishment of a new covenant, and specific injunctions to Israel: not to make a covenant with the peoples of Canaan, lest the Israelites fall into idolatry with them, nor to intermarry with them; to observe the Festival of Matzot (Passover) for seven days in the month of spring, the season of the Exodus; to consecrate firstborn animals and children to G-d, the animals through an animal sacrifice and a child through a monetary redemption; to cease agricultural labor on the Sabbath; the celebrate the Festivals of Shavuot and Sukkot, together with Passover the three Pilgrimage festivals; to eliminate leaven on Passover; to eat the Passover sacrifice completely on Passover eve; to bring first fruits as an offerng to the Temple; and not to seethe a kid in its mother's milk.
It seems a pretty unrelated collection of instructions. But there is a theme that runs through it that I want to focus on: the theme of facing G-d and G-d's face.
Moses' plea to G-d at the start of the selection begins:
See, you told me to bring up this nation, but You did not let me know who You would send with me, and yet You said You know me by name and that I have found favor in Your eyes. Now, if I have indeed found favor in Your eyes, please let me know Your path, that I may know You, that I may find favor in Your eyes; for see: this nation is Your people.
My face will lead you, and give you comfort.
To which Moses responds:
If we are to go without Your face, do not bring us up from here. For how will it be known that I found favor in Your eyes, I and Your people, if not for that You go among us; for thus are Your people and I distinguished from all the peoples on the face of the earth.
G-d assents to Moses' request, at which point Moses says:
Please, show me Your glory.
And G-d responds:
I will cause to pass before your face all My goodness, and cry in the name of the Lord before you, and I will be gracious to whom I am gracious, and merciful to whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see My face, for no man may see Me and live.
There is a place with Me, where you can stand upon the rock. And when My glory passes, I will place you in a cleft in the rock, and I will place My hand over you until I have passed. And then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back; but My face you will not see.
Traditionally, the heavy anthropomorphism of this passage is understood metaphorically. It is not the sight of G-d, who has no form, and therefore no face, but some aspect of His divinity that cannot be comprehended by the living. One interpretation is: to see G-d's face is to apprehend His design for the universe, something we cannot fathom. We can only see His back - that is to say, the sign of G-d's presence in the world after He has had his effect.
But what I think is interesting is: Moses never asks to see G-d's face. He asks two things: first, to know G-d's path, so that he can continue to find favor as leader of G-d's people; and second, to see G-d's glory. It is G-d Himself who refers repeatedly to His face. In response to Moses' question of who will lead the people with him, G-d answers: My face. And in response to Moses' request that G-d show him His glory, G-d replies: I will make My goodness pass before you; I will call out in My name; you will see My back; but My face you will not see. The one time Moses refers to G-d's face, it is in reaction to G-d's statement that His face will lead the people with Moses, and his reaction reads to me like surprise and alarm: if we have to go on without G-d's face, better we should never leave Sinai.
What's going on here? To answer, I want to look at a couple of other points in the section where there are references to G-d's face:
In Exodus 34:20, apropos of the redemption of the firstborn of animals and of human sons, the verse concludes: ve-lo yeirau phanai reiqam - literally, and you will not be seen before My face empty-handed.
In Exodus 34:23, apropos of pilgrimages: shalosh pa'amim ba-shanah yeiraeh kol zekhurkha et penei ha-adon HASHEM Eloqei Yisrael - Three times every year all men among you will be seen before the face of the Lord G-D, the G-d of Israel.
And the following verse continues: ki orish goyim mi-panekha, ve-hirchavti et gevulekha, ve-lo yachamod ish et artzekha ba'alotekha la-raot et penei HASHEM Eloqekha shalosh pa'amim ba-shanah - For I will drive out the nations before your face, and extend your borders, and no man will envy you your land when you ascend to be seen before the face of the Lord your G-d three times a year.
Seeing G-d's face is something humans are not meant to do. But to be seen before G-d's face is something we are supposed to do regularly. And the timing of that encounter is specific: it takes place when new life comes into the world, and at the pilgrimage festivals. These seasons are seasons of gratitude for G-d's manifest presence in the world, as the author of life and as the divine actor in the national life of Israel in the world, as Israel progresses from Passover (redemption from slavery and rebirth in freedom), to Pentecost (the receipt of the Torah and its obligations of a free man and a free people before G-d), to Tabernacles (the sheltering under G-d's presence in the wilderness and the entry into the Land with its bounty, a prefiguring of the Messianic apotheosis).
Moses does not have the effrontery to ask to see G-d's face. But what he is looking for is assurance of G-d's presence in the world and with His people. And so he dances around the subject: he asks G-d who is going to go with him; he asks to see G-d's glory. In a roundabout way he is asking G-d: how do I know for sure that at the end of our wandering in the wilderness there will be redemption? What can you show me that will assure me?
G-d's assurance begins with the revelation of His goodness, and of His name, which is compassionate and merciful. The nation may sin, but it will always have recourse to repentance. But the assurance expands outward from there, into the time when the people dwell in the Land. And G-d assures Moses, in effect, thusly: when you enter the Land, and show your gratitude to G-d for all His blessings on you by redeeming your first born sons, and offering the first-born of your flocks and your first fruits, and coming to stand before me at your festivals of Thanksgiving three times a year; when you show this gratitude, and do not behave as if all this was achieved by your own power; then truly you will have appeared before G-d's face, and then truly the nations of the world will see that you are privileged to so stand in the presence of G-d, and by this manner will your redemption be secure.
Thursday, September 19, 2002
The phoniness of Israel's responses to Palestinian terror is really getting me down. Israeli tanks have again surrounded Arafat's compound in response to the murder of five Israeli civilians in a bus bombing today. But no action is going to be taken against Arafat personally, because . . . I no longer know why.
The Jerusalem Post has an interesting little item. Bret Stephens, the editor in chief, points out that the current war still has no name - other than "the situation" - and that the lack of a name bespeaks a confusion about the causes and purpose of the conflict. Without knowing these things, you cannot define victory, and if you cannot define victory, you cannot achieve it. And not achieving victory is exactly what's going on with these periodic invasions of Arafat's compound coupled with promises not to harm a hair on his precious head. So the Post has asked writers from Israel in America are asked to come up with a name.
I think they have a point. Israel may be firmly united in its determination to prosecute this war, and determined not to surrender to terror. But it is not united on the war's aims, and this is the reason that the war has no name. (The Palestinians, by the way, are united in what they call the war: they call it the al-Aqsa Intifadah, that is to say, the Jerusalem Uprising. That's pretty clear: this is a popular upheaval to drive the foreigners out of Jerusalem. It is not only a national but a religious war, and it is, expressed in this way, presumptively justified.)
I myself have been calling it "the Oslo War" for some time, but I know that's polemical: I believe strongly that the Oslo Accords are the root cause of this particular war. Not all Israelis agree. I suspect they eventually will, and that this will be the informal name for the war for most people in the future. But if there is no consensus on cause, what can there be consensus on? What name could most Israelis agree on?
* We could name it after the enemy: The Fatah War. Kind of how we named the wars that engulfed Europe in the early 19th century after their author, Napoleon. That would be nicely clarifying, since plenty of people are still under the delusion that Fatah are the good guys, as against the more extreme Hamas, when in fact Fatah has been responsible for most of the murderous violence of this war. If this is the Fatah War, then the war aim must be the end of the current regime in the Palestinian territories.
* We could name it after the tactics: The Terror War. Israel fought a war after 1967 known only as "The War of Attrition," and naming the situation "The Terror War" would be similar. This is probably the formulation that would be most acceptable to mainstream Laborites. If this is the Terror War, then the war aim is simply to frustrate and defeat terror as a tactic; there are no political or territorial aims per se.
* We could name it after the date it started: The Millennium War. I kind of like this one. On the one hand, it's purely factual: the war started in 2000, after Arafat's emphatic "no" at Camp David. But it also captures something of what Richard Perle talks about in his comment to the Jerusalem Post that this was "the idealists' war" - a war caused brought on Israel by idealists who willed their belief that peace was at hand, against all evidence. And using a Christian date would be nicely neutral, since this is largely a war between Muslims and Jews.
* Or we could name it, perhaps overly poetically, after Ehud Barak's favorite phrase to explain his strategy: The Unmasked War. Barak repeatedly said that he was ready to make Arafat such generous offers at Camp David and at Taba because it was a no-lose proposition for Israel. Either Arafat would accept the terms, and he would then have no grounds for additional claims; or he would reject terms that were obviously generous, and his true aim - the destruction of Israel - would thereby be "unmasked" before the world, resulting in diplomatic support for Israel. Well, he was unmasked all right - and so was much of the world. This war for the first time has made it truly clear who Israel's friends are and who are its enemies, and just how little the world cares if the only Jewish state in the world is extinguished by violence. Quite an unmasking.
Wednesday, September 18, 2002
ParaPundit.com takes a walk down memory lane to discuss deterrence. (Thanks to Joe Katzman for the link.) Specifically: why it won't work against Iraq, will work against us, and therefore why we can't let regimes like Iraq exist.
So why did it work against the Ruskies (who played the game of brinksmanship with consummate skill, as did we)? Why did it work against Hitler (he used gas against innocent civilians, but not against British troops)? Why does it appear to have worked against India (ten years ago, they would probably have invaded Pakistan in reponse to terrorist provocation)?
It's time to take a trip down the rougher tracks of memory lane, the parts of the road we don't like to remember. Mutually-assured-destruction was an after-the-fact doctrine, only embraced in the 1960s and 1970s. It is not what deterrence is about. We only started to think of MAD as a normal way to think about war after President Reagan proposed to abolish it through the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, which sent liberals scurrying to defend a doctrine they had previously found abhorrent. Which it is: threatening to destroy the world is horribly immoral. When we first built the bomb, we built it to be used, and used for clear, limited objectives. We had nuclear mines laid in Germany and nuclear artillery shells for use against Soviet armor. We invented the neutron bomb to do the latter job even better. The point was not to say: if you invade we will destroy the world, so don't invade. The point was to say: if you invade we will vaporize your army, and as a consequence you will LOSE THE WAR. And if you're going to lose the war, it's better not to start one.
Nuclear weapons are just weapons. Big, powerful, horrible weapons, but just weapons. The money line from the movie Wargames - "strange game: the only way to win is not to play" - is wrong, and when we act like it is right what we are doing is preemptively deterring ourselves. If India and Pakistan lobbed a few nukes at each other, life on earth would go on. Millions would die, but millions died in World War II before the use of nuclear weapons. Britain thought it was worth losing a whole generation of its youth in World War I to achieve the objective of preventing German domination of Europe. Britain was not fighting because the Germans wanted to murder all British people; they were not fighting because they had "nothing left to lose." They were fighting for concrete and limited, though considerable, geopolitical objectives. They paid a price measured in millions. That's the same calculation we will bring to future wars with enemies armed with weapons of mass destruction. Deterrence is about raising the cost of war so high that it is not worth it for the enemy to challenge you. It is not about threatening to destroy the world so that the enemy does your bidding.
So let's come back to Iraq. Is Iraq deterrable? We'd better hope so. The odds are that they already have significant weapons of mass destruction. They certainly have nerve gas and other potent chemical weapons, and almost certainly biological weapons like anthrax and possibly smallpox. There's a very good chance they already have nuclear weapons; in 1998, we thought they were only a couple of years away, maybe less. Will they use them against us? They will if it achieves their objectives. And if we know that that is the case, then we will likely be deterred. But it is not at all impossible that they will be deterred. Even if Saddam Hussein personally has nothing to lose, it is not at all true that everyone in Iraq has nothing to lose. If they are clearly going to lose the war, they will surrender. And if they are going to surrender, they are not going to murder millions of Americans first, because it would achieve absolutely no objective. The Soviet Union collapsed in a heap, and never fired a nuclear missile at anyone. Milosevic surrendered to a war-crimes tribunal; he did not fight to the last Serb. And again: even Hitler was deterred from using gas against allied troops, reserving it for Jewish civilians.
So if Iraq isn't going to destroy the world, why do we need to conquer it? Because there are legitimate and vital interests short of the survival of the planet. Because if we let Iraq survive, it will know WE were deterred from attacking it. And it will challenge us further, until we reach a point where we cannot afford not to fight back, even at much higher cost. Iraq has already tried to assassinate an American President, conspired with terrorists who have killed thousands of Americans, and proclaimed its intentions to defeat the United States, a country with which it remains at war by its own admission. We will have to defeat it eventually. The correlation of forces will not get more favorable. So we should defeat it now.
Let's take a deep breath and realize that this generation is going to live through at least one nuclear war. Yes: live through. I live in New York, so my odds are a little lower; if I lived in New Delhi or Tel Aviv, my odds would be lower still, but even there the odds aren't bad. Nuclear munitions are more likely to be used against American aircraft carriers than American cities. And when they are used, we will not respond by destroying the world. That's the reality of ordinary warfare in the future. And we've got to be able to talk about it before we'll be ready to fight it. And we've got to be ready to fight it if we're going to have a prayer of not having to.
Very interesting article in The Atlantic Monthly about the future of Christianity. Here is an interview with the author, Philip Jenkins. I just bought his book, and I'll check back in on the topic when I've got it read.
Some quick reactions to the article and the interview however:
Jenkins' basic argument is that Christianity is (a) the fastest growing religion in the world; (b) shifting its center of gravity radically towards the "Global South"; (c) not going to become more liberal, but rather more conservative, traditional, supernaturalist and primitive; and (d) the changes in global Christianity are going to dominate the history of the 21st century.
The argument is basically true, particularly if you are contrasting Africa and Europe, which is what Jenkins is doing most of the time. But that's my main quibble with the book: Africa and Europe are two extremes in terms of Christianity today, and may not be good templates for understanding the future of Christianity in the United States, Latin America or Asia.
So let's talk about these quibbles, briefly.
(1) Latin America has been Christian for 500 years. It is not being "Christianized." What is happening there is that Pentecostalism and Mormonism are starting to make inroads against traditional Catholicism, and novel religions are being born as well that have some family relation to Christianity but that cannot be called Christian. The former phenomenon is partly related the the Americanization of the region, and is therefore a distinctly different process from what is going on in Africa. The latter phenomenon, meanwhile, is most pronounced in the African regions of Latin America: Brazil and the Carribbean. So once again, we may be dealing with a process that has more to do with African culture than with the dynamics of Christianity generally. Latin American Catholicism does not look so radically different from Catholicism in Europe a century ago, and the challenge from Pentecostalism and Mormonism is fundamentally different from the challenge of Martin Luther and Henry VIII, because America is this external force operating that has no analog in 16th century Europe.
(2) Jenkins keeps referring to the "poorest of the poor" as the locus of the new Christianity. But neither Latin America nor Asia fits the description. Brazil and Mexico, the two dominant nations of Latin America, are large, partially developed societies with a high degree of social stratification, strong national identities, and abundant wealth as well as poverty. Moreover, they have both seen rapidly declining birth rates over the past 30 years. They look very different from sub-Saharan Africa, demographically, historically, culturally or economically. Asia is an even more dramatic contrast. India and China have enormous wealth, long and literate religious traditions that historically have proven resilient in the face of foreign religious challenges, and China in particular is on the cusp of demographic shrinkage; all future growth is the echo of the last generation's population boom, as fertility is now sub-replacement. Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea: these are religiously vibrant and interesting societies, and Christianity is strong and growing in each country. But in no sense are these among the poorest countries of the world. Again, the appeal of "primitive" Christianity in China or Korea is not rampant poverty, low life expectancy, epidemic disease and random violence. Pentecostalism is especially popular, according to Ian Buruma, in Singapore, an extremely wealthy country with a distinctly odoriferous political and social culture. The "Global South" model is missing something.
(3) There's a real question - not only in my mind, but in the mind of much of the Catholic heirarchy - over how much of what is going on in Africa - which, again, is Jenkins' template for understanding the future of Christianity - is really Christianity. Jenkins glosses over this when he lumps Pentecostalism and Catholicism in with horrific phenomena like the Lord's Resistance Army. Pope John Paul II has been reported to have expressed reluctance to dramatically raise the profile of the African Church specifically because of the continent's recency of evangelization. Much of what is going on there looks less like the Reformation Era than it does like the early Christian period, or like the earlier Middle Ages, the era of the Cathars and the Albigensians and (to pick a group that stayed - barely - Orthodox) the Franciscans. We don't know at this early date to what extent what is going on in the heart of Africa will ultimately look like Christianity - and remain part of established churches with institutional histories - and to what extent it will look like something new, and to what extent it will simply be eclipsed. To make another historical analogy: Africa may look in some ways like the Burnt Over District of upstate New York in the 1830s. Out of the wild wackiness that went on there came the LDS (Mormon) Church, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists. Are these Christian groups? The last pretty certainly yes. The Witnesses? Tougher call; they believe a whole lot of things that don't look much like Christianity. The Mormons? I'd say not; their church is related to Christianity, but they believe in a plurality of gods, the ability of humans to become divine, and they have a new scripture. They may call themselves Christians, but they look like a new religion to me. What's happening in Africa may be the future of Christianity, but only if it remains Christianity.
(4) How much do numbers matter? The Catholic Church has for centuries been led by Italians, but most Catholics are not Italian. How much influence did the enormous Irish population - largely in the diaspora in America, Britain and Australia - have on the institutional and doctrinal history of the Church? And how much compared with the Irish influence in the early middle ages, when it was one of the few literate areas of Europe? Numbers are not everything. They may not even be the most important thing. Again, I'm not arguing that the liberals are going to win out within the Catholic Church because they are "literate" and the traditionalists are "primitive." I don't accept that characterization and I don't think that's a good prediction. But no church, no religion is a democracy, and the fact that large numbers of believers follow one or another practice or doctrine does not necessarily mean that that practice or doctrine represents the future of the religion.
In any event, it's an important and interesting topic, and I look forward to reading his book and reporting my reactions in this space.
Tuesday, September 17, 2002
Still easing my way back into things. Yesterday was Yom Kippur, so no blog, and I also didn't get around to reading any of the Journal. Which means I missed Mark Helprin's eloquent (as usual) denunciation of President Bush's conduct of the war.
Eloquent, yes, but I have to admit: I went into the piece agreeing with him, and came out skeptical. I agreed going in with many of his points. Do I feel we're drifting? Yes. We have been talking about invading Iraq since September 12, 2001. Now it looks like we may have cleverly maneuvered ourselves into playing another game of hide-the-bomb-from-the-inspectors. It's pathetic. Am I disappointed by Bush's lack of a military build-up? Acutely. Our armed forces need the most expensive thing in the world: more men. We won't get them by drafting them; a draft would actually degrade readiness. But we could get them by upping recruitment goals and paying the necessary price. And don't get me started on the home front.
So I'm inclined to agree with his critique. But by taking it too far, Helprin winds up hoist on his own petard. Most glaringly, Helprin's relentless analogizing to World War II leads him to say absurd things. He suggests, for example, that without the military power in place to take on a united Arab world all at once, we are foolish to go into Iraq. That's an interesting view. It happens to coincide rather nicely with the views of Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell. If, after all, you need not only sufficient force to overwhelm the known enemy but all potential enemies, then you are unlikely to commit forces to combat. Helprin ridicules the Perle-Rumsfeld view that the Iraqi army will lack the will to fight. There's no reason to bank on rosy scenarios, but again, the acme of the art of war is to defeat the enemy without, or with a minimum of fighting. It's certainly no dishonor to try to win that way.
Osama bin Laden would like to be Hitler. But he is not Hitler in 1940, the conqueror of Poland and France threatening to invade Britain. He is the Hitler of 1922. The attack on America was his beer-hall putsch; it is as if Hitler had tried to spring to power in Germany by blowing up the Eiffel Tower. And because he is a different enemy than Hitler, he will need to be fought differently.
The threat of overwhelming force is invaluable, and we need to have that force available. But we also need many of the things that Helprin disdains: allies, in Europe and in the Muslim world, whom we can leverage to deny the terrorist enemy access to far greater force. Al Qaeda's primary goal is to seize control of a powerful enough Muslim territory that it can claim leadership of the Muslim world and unite it in war against the West. To deny them that success, we need to kill the members of al Qaeda, but we also have to keep other governments from falling to them or cooperating with them. Some states, like Iraq, are unlikely to be deterred; they need to be eliminated. Once eliminated, though, we will need to manage them; that is something we will not achieve solely through the application of force, though force will be an indispensible element.
Again, I don't want to downplay the need for greater military strength. With 500,000 or so more men under arms, with a couple of additional aircraft carriers and so forth, we could stop worrying about our ability to defend Taiwan and invade Iraq at the same time. We could move with greater confidence, and we would frankly attract more allies. But the military buildup we need is on the scale of the Reagan buildup, not the Roosevelt buildup. The world is not our enemy. Much of the world is actually sympathetic to our larger cause, and we want to enlist them, not ignore them. Places like Egypt, Pakistan, Russia and Belgium are not always friendly or attractive. But they could be far more obstructive than they are, and far more dangerous. The last thing we want to give al Qaeda is the grand battle they want.
Friday, September 13, 2002
The New Republic has a great editorial about the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party with respect to the looming war to depose Saddam Hussein. It's an important piece, because what it says is true: the Democrats are eagerly abdicating any serious responsibility for dealing with the most serious issue of our time. They are effectively voting themselves out of executive power for a generation. This is madness from a political perspective. But it is also very unhealthy for the country, which deserves a serious debate on foreign policy goals and means, something currently going on only within the Republican Party, and not between the two parties.
The piece reflexively asserts that Gore would not have been so bankrupt, something I'm highly skeptical about. I remember Gore's position in the MX debate in the early 1980s. (Yes, I was following this stuff when I was 13. That's how much of a geek I am.) He was one of the lead movers behind the Midgetman alternative. So far as I can tell, the purpose of that alternative was to protect the Democratic Party from being attacked as being soft on nuclear issues; the strategic rationale for the Midgetman versus the MX was thin. In other words, Gore from the beginning of his career understood the political problem the Democrats had in foreign affairs, and tried to address it, but he did not accept that the Democrats had a philosophical problem. The same was true in the debate on the Gulf War, where Gore publicly agonized before committing himself to the war. It was pretty clear that he was trying to cover his rear end rather than make policy; he would vote for, so that he was safe if the war went well and was popular, but he would first make all the arguments against, so that he could claim he would have handled things better if the war went poorly. Again, his calculus was political, not philosophical.
You can count on one hand the serious Democratic thinkers on foreign policy. Richard Holbrooke is one. Joe Lieberman is another. I might give the honor to John Kerry, because he seems to me to be a serious liberal rather than a knee-jerk posturer. Anyone else? Joe Biden? Don't make me laugh. Dick Gephardt? Get real. Tom Daschle? You can't be serious. How about the old Executive Branch hands - Former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher, former heads of the National Security Council Tony Lake and Sandy Berger, former Secretaries of Defense Lee Hamilton and Bill Cohen (oh, wait, he's a Republican), former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton? Any takers? I thought not. The best of them are tinkerers or posturers, the worst ditherers, hand-wringers and declinists. Compare that list with the GOP. There's a diversity of opinion within the GOP, between folks like John McCain, Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, Dick Armey, Tom Delay, Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Chuck Hagel, Dick Lugar and so forth. They don't all agree. But it's a long list, and it's a list of serious people.
It's not good for the country that only one party be capable of debating matters of national security. By abdicating responsibility, the Democrats are undermining the President. They have taken no position to which they can be held to account; if they war goes badly, they did not support it, so they can attack Bush for it; if it goes well, they can climb on the bandwagon and try to pretend they did nothing to obstruct it. Moreover, if Bush abandons the war, they can attack him for this as well, since they never argued that he should do so. This makes it harder for the President to see the depth of national support and therefore less confident in making policy. And this in turn weakens the country. The Democrats need to get serious - not only for their own good, but for ours.
Thursday, September 12, 2002
Apropos of both September 11 and the approach of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Rabbi Benjamin Blech has a meditation on the question: are we obliged forgive the terrorists of 9-11? It's worth a read, but I'll summarize here in order to be able to add my 2c.
R. Blech asks, rhetorically: if G-d is all-merciful, surely He forgives even horrible murderers like the 9-11 terrorists. And if He does so, and we are called to imitate him, then surely we should aspire similarly to forgive. But this doesn't seem right. So what should we do?
R. Blech answers in two parts. First, he says, forgiveness is predicated on repentance. Since the terrorists have not repented, they cannot be forgiven. Second, he says, forgiveness can only come from the wronged. Since we were not the wronged, we cannot do the forgiving. (For this reason, incidentally, murder and slander are considered the two unforgivable crimes by the Talmud, because for neither can resistution be made. For theft or assault or many other crimes, the criminal can either return what was taken or make monetary resistitution that compensates for the harm done. But a lost life cannot be regained, and cannot be compensated for, and a lost reputation similarly can never be restored.)
I think R. Blech has actually identified a fault line between, if I may over-generalize, Jewish and Christian ethics. It is a very Jewish idea that repentance is the gate to forgiveness. But Christianity works somewhat differently, for in Christian terms we are all born sinful, and only through the grace of G-d have we any hope of eternity. G-d forgives us not because of our repentance but because He has made expiation for us through the sacrifice of Himself in the person of His Son, Jesus. If we are to imitate that action, then arguably we should forgive even those who have not repented.
Let's dig a little deeper. What is forgiveness? What does it actually mean? In his book A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, Andre Comte-Sponville argues that forgiveness is a forgetting that a wrong ever occurred. And he argues, incidentally, that forgiveness should be granted to all wrongdoers, in keeping with his principle that unconditional love is the greatest virtue and the root of all other virtues. (It's a very Christian-influenced book, though totally secular in formulation.) I think that he is right that there is a forgetting involved in forgiveness, but it is not a forgetting of the wrong, but of who did the wrong. When one forgives, one says: I shall treat you, who did me wrong, as if you did me no wrong. As if, in effect, you are a different person from the one who did me wrong.
This understanding of forgiveness ties back very neatly with the whole question of repentance. When we repent, we assert that we have become a different person. The person we were may have done wrong; the person we have become would not, and we establish a radical break between the two. In the Jewish paradigm outlined by R. Blech, forgiveness is the recognition that this change has occurred. G-d, or we in imitation of G-d, recognizes that the sinner has become a new person, and deserves to be treated as such. But in another paradigm, which I am presuming to call Christian (and I do want to stress, I'm both over-simplifying and distorting to do so, but I'm doing it to draw a distinction between two ideas), G-d initiates the change through an act of expiation on our behalf, and we through faith then recognize G-d's already granted forgiveness. If we are to imitate G-d in this paradigm, we do not hold out the promise of forgiveness in response to repentance but forgive in order to prompt repentance.
I agree with R. Blech that we should not forgive the terrorists. I believe profoundly in the power of repentance, but I am more skeptical of the psychology that says that I can change another by forgiving him preemptively, as it were - and absent such a psychology, I don't see the point of forgiving them. But I disagree with him that the impulse to forgive in the absence of repentance is immoral, or necessarily causes sin. I think the impulse springs from deep Christian roots. I may not agree with the impulse, nor trust its roots, but I think they should be reckoned with and rebutted, not dismissed.
Wednesday, September 11, 2002
Today is the yahrzeit (the one-year anniversary of death) for those murdered on September 11. Traditionally, a Jewish child who loses a parent (and, by extension, after the loss of any other immediate relative) says kaddish for the parent at a minyan (a prayer quorum of ten) three times a day for a year. The end of the year is the end of mourning.
Having a structure to mourning has a purpose. At the moment of greatest shock, the mourner is immobilized, and the structure supports this mental position. The mourner tears his clothes, does not bathe, and sits on the floor and is waited on by others. This lasts one week from the funeral. After a week, mourning lessens, but is still acute for thirty days. And after thirty days, it lessens further, but continues for eleven months. The last month of mourning, no kaddish is said, until the yahrzeit, which marks the end of the period of mourning. The formality of the process supports the mourner, letting his grief flow into channels and so allow life to continue, and to integrate the loss into life's routines. It doesn't always work, of course, but that's the idea.
There's been a lot of talk about whether our feelings on the yahrzeit should be of anger or of grief. Obviously, we should and do feel both. But the kaddish expresses a different feeling. The kaddish is a doxology; it expresses extravagant praise of G-d. Why are we to speak G-d's praises at such a time? Because there is great merit in praising G-d, the source of all, at a time of trial, and that merit accrues to those whom we have lost, who raised us to show such merit, and who abide with Him now.
G-d is a righteous judge. What does that mean? Does it mean that he only kills those who deserve to die? Then we must all deserve to die. Does it mean that he gives us all the death we deserve? Then are we to believe that a two year old girl, flying to Disneyland, deserved to be incinerated when her plane was crashed into the World Trade Center?
When his trials became too great for him to bear, Job cried out - not at the injustice of G-d, but that he could not understand G-d's justice. And G-d replied to him out of the whirlwind with a song of praise of Behemoth and Leviathan. What does this mean? To reduce an argument that I shall return to in the future (for a preview, you could read Ahad Ha'am's 1898 essay on Nietzsche's transvaluation of values), what this means is that G-d created us not merely to be good but to be great. Behemoth and Leviathan are perfections of their kinds, beings of terror and might. And we have within us the potential for the perfection of our kind, a being created in the image and form of the divine, with the divine capacity for goodness and for greatness. I have to believe that this is the sense in which G-d is just, and more than just, for none of us deserve this divine gift, and to grasp it for one instant is to redeem a world.
I attach below my first coherent thoughts after September 11, 2001. It took me a few days, I admit, to begin to become coherent; I spent the first couple of days after the towers fell wandering about in a daze, shepherded by friends with less vivid imaginations or stouter mental constitutions. And I apologize for the sense, which stings me a year later but which I didn't notice at the time, that my words sound a bit like a campaign pitch. In any event, here they are:
Dear Family and Friends:
I want to reassure everyone that Carolyn and I are fine, and that furthermore all our friends and loved ones whom we have tried to contact are alive and well. Amazingly, no one in our apartment building, no one from our colleagues, no one from our synagogue or from our circle of friends was lost in the attack on September 11th. It feels selfish to be grateful, when so many have lost so much, but we are grateful, profoundly so, for having been spared the suffering that we have seen.
As the Days of Awe approach, I find my mouth stopped from prayer, or at least the kind of prayer called for on this season. On Rosh Hashanah, we begin a season of introspection, searching our souls for our misdeeds, and asking forgiveness of G-d and our fellows, as appropriate, for the offenses done them. We contemplate with awe the approach of the Day of Judgment, and seek to purify ourselves. But all my thoughts fly outward, not inward. We are enjoined not to comfort the bereaved with their dead lying before them. Our dead are before us – they will remain so, literally, for weeks and months as the wreckage is removed, girder by girder. So how shall we turn, as are told to on Yom Kippur, to mourning for ourselves?
Well, why are we supposed to mourn ourselves, at this season? Why are we supposed to afflict our souls? It is not, as might be the case in some philosophies, for the perfection of our souls in isolation. We turn inward during the Days of Awe, yes, but not for the sake of inwardness itself, for the sake of our selves. We turn inward in order to do teshuvah, to return to G-d. And returning to G-d, it seems to me, means doing G-d’s work in this world, not in another. The prayer and fasting that we will engage in are spiritual exercises designed not to remove us from the world but to prepare us for action in it. It seems to me that those are the kinds of exercises we very much need at this time, more than ever.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the binding of Isaac. G-d asks Abraham to take his son, his only son, his beloved, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah to raise him up as a burnt offering on a mountain that G-d would designate. Abraham duly goes, Isaac walking beside, and they climb the mountain, and on the way Isaac asks where the lamb is for the sacrifice. And Abraham answers: G-d will provide the lamb. And they ascend to the top, and Isaac is bound; and Abraham has already raised his knife to cut his throat when an angel intervenes to stop the slaughter. And indeed, G-d provides a lamb to substitute for Isaac, and Abraham is blessed.
Like most people, I have long found the story to be terrible in the original sense of the word: inspiring terror. I have struggled to understand what possible meaning this abortive human sacrifice might have. But I began to understand it when I read a story in Senator John McCain’s book, Faith of My Fathers.
John McCain, as probably the whole world knows by now, was imprisoned in North Vietnam for five and a half years, through the late 1960s and early 1970s. During that time, his father was an Admiral, and commanded the fleets of planes that were bombing North Vietnam. As everyone in the world probably also knows, John McCain refused an offer from his captors to be released early in his imprisonment. He did so because if captives were to be freed they should rightly be freed in the order they were captured, and if he were set free earlier because of his high-ranking connections it would have a devastating effect on American morale.
One year, on Christmas, Admiral McCain took a helicopter to the border with North Vietnam, to get as close to his son as he could. And he watched the bombers passing overhead toward the North, with their deadly payloads. And he knew that any one of them might land on the very prison where his son was being held. And that was how they spent Christmas together, that year.
I read this story and I thought: that’s the story of the binding of Isaac. Now I understand it. At times we are constrained – by necessity, by what is right and by what is true: that is to say, by the will of G-d – to put our lives and, more terribly, the lives of our beloveds in mortal danger. We do not do so laughingly, knowing that 70 virgins will wait upon our dead sons in the next world. We do so with no hope of reward of any kind, knowing only that we must, praying only that G-d, if He is merciful, will provide a lamb for sacrifice instead – that the worst will not come to pass, and those we love will return to us in safety.
We are not always granted that much. Over 300 firefighters in this city, and their loved ones, were not granted that much. Jeremy Glick and the other passengers of flight 93 – who died heroes, bringing down their plane in a Pennsylvania field rather than allow themselves to become a sacrifice to Moloch – were not granted that much. But had they not had the faith, the knowledge that they must do right even at the cost of their lives, we would not have their zechut – their merit – to rely on when we face our own trials to come.
Our President has made it clear: we are at war. I do not anticipate that this will be a short or an easy war. Our enemy has operations in dozens of countries, including this one. He is supported, out of enthusiasm or fear, by many governments among our purported friends as well as among our enemies. He has shown his cunning, his ruthlessness, and most of all his patience, in his successful plot to kill thousands of innocents and bring down the symbols of our civilization. And in striking at him, as we must, we will bring down others who will in turn seek their own vengeance upon us. Before we enter such a war, it is all the more incumbent upon us, to cleanse our hearts to serve G-d in truth, and to pray for G-d’s help in doing so.
G-d willing, few among us will be required to make the kind of sacrifice that Abraham did.
G-d willing, we will all be inscribed and sealed this year in the book of life.
For those who are interested, here is a Hebrew prayer composed for the yahrzeit of September 11.
Tuesday, September 10, 2002
Well, the bris was yesterday, and things are just barely returning to what will in the future be the new normal around the house. Moses Eli Millman (in Hebrew Moshe Elisha ben Noach Gideon v' Rivkah) was incredibly well-behaved yesterday, the mohel was extremely professional (his name is Rabbi Gerald Chirnomas, if anyone out there is in the market for one), his grandparents (and great-grandparents!) gushed appropriately and the guests ate the copious food with gusto. A successful bris all around!
I hope I haven't lost all of my readers with the recent hiatus. I have been pretty out of the loop on news lately, but it doesn't look like anything important happened - it's not like we're at war with Iraq yet or anything. I'll be blogging some Days-of-Awe related stuff over the next few days, but don't be surprised if the news-related or policy-related stuff is thin on the ground.
Friday, September 06, 2002
I know I've been away for a week, but I have a good explanation! On Wednesday, we brought home our first baby from the hospital. I shall return, but posting will be a bit more sporadic for the next, oh, 18 years. I appreciate your forbearance.