Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Romans 13, Tolerance Zero

Not here. Not now. Not in our name: We have seen the pictures, watched the videos, heard the voices. Children being separated from their parents - by agents of our government - as they cross the US-Mexico border to plea for asylum.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editorial Cartoonist Rob Rogers: ‘I Was Fired’

Our Attorney General has supported this new and purposefully frightening US policy, in part, by quoting Romans 13, a passage from Paul’s epistle to the Romans.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 
Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

But Abq Jew recalls the words of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice.
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
Oh, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

We Jews, Abq Jew is proud to report, are not Christians.

We need pay no attention to what Paul may (or may not) have said as he was trying to sell (you should forgive the expression) his particular brand of Christianity to what would become, through the mystery of history, the Holy Roman Empire.

But we Jews do, in fact, have our own version of Romans 13.

Allow Abq Jew to present

דינא ד׳מלכותא דינא

Dina d'malkhuta dina (the law of the land is the law) is a Rabbinic / Talmudic statement that Jews must observe the laws of wherever they live.

The blog Jewish Treats explains:
“Dina d’malchuta dina,” the law of the land is the law, is a phrase repeated numerous times in the Talmud, and always attributed to the sage Samuel. According to Samuel, there is no question that a Jew must obey the laws of the land in which he/she resides... unless that law directly contradicts halacha (for instance a law ordering everyone to worship idols).  
In certain cases, the rabbis determined that certain rulers and their unfair and harsh laws were dangerous to the Jewish people, and therefore permitted the local Jews to "skirt the laws" or even to ignore them (such as the anti-Semitic decrees of the Russian Czars). In a country like the United States, however, there is no question that dina d’malchuta dina must be strictly observed.  
What does this mean? This means that being a law-abiding citizen is more that just one’s civic duty, it is one’s religious obligation as well. Taxes, civil law, even the “rules of the road” are our responsibility to uphold.

But let's hold our horses.

Our Rabbis of Blessed Memory, however, were not unequivocal about the matter.

And Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) points out the degree of the Rabbis' uncertainty about dealing with the government.

On one hand:
[Rabban Gamaliel the son of Rabbi Judah the Prince said:] Be careful in your relations with the government; for they draw no man close to themselves except for their own interests. They appear as friends when it is to their advantage, but they do not stand by a man in his time of need. (Pirke Avot 2:3)
But on the other hand:
Rabbi Chanina, an assistant of the High Priest said: Pray for the welfare of the government, since but for fear of it men would swallow each other alive. (Pirke Avot 3:2)
Both of these statements - both of these viewpoints - are, Abq Jew fears, true. Yet, as F. Scott Fitzgerald informs us:
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
From which, Abq Jew claims, we must ask each other


Which side are you on?


Most of the major and minor American Jewish institutions - 27 or more - have issued statements strongly opposing our government's immoral treatment of refugees.

Just one example: Bend the Arc has declared a state of Moral Emergency. Here is their statement:
The Trump Administration's inhumane immigration policies can only continue if good people stay silent. Add your voice to this communal declaration from the Jewish community. 
To this country, in whose promise we still believe, to the millions of people who are outraged and horrified, and especially to the thousands of children who have been separated from their families, we declare our nation to be in a state of moral emergency. 
This Administration has established border policies unprecedented in their scope and cruelty, that are inflicting physical, mental, and emotional harm on immigrants and punishing those seeking refuge at our borders. 
We are anguished by the stories and images of desperate parents torn from their babies and detention facilities packed with children. We shudder with the knowledge that these inhumane policies are committed in our name, and we lift our voices in protest. 
The Jewish community, like many others, knows all too well what it looks like for a government to criminalize the most vulnerable, to lie and obfuscate to justify grossly immoral practices under the banner of “the law,” to interpret holy scripture as a cover for human cruelty, to normalize what can never be made normal. We have seen this before. 
When crying children are taken from their parents’ arms, the American Jewish community must not remain silent. 
To those who are targeted by these cruel policies, know that the Jewish community hears your cries. We will take risks to support you, and we will demand that our nation’s leaders take action. We will not abide the claim that people didn’t know or understand the extent of your suffering; we will not allow your torment to be in vain. 
Our government can persist in this inhumane behavior only if good people remain silent. 
And so we declare a state of moral emergency, and we rise to meet this moment. Even as our democratic institutions are under duress, we raise our voices and take decisive action. United by the wisdom of our tradition, we stand with immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, with the children, and with their parents. 
We declare: Not here. Not now. Not in our name.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Korach and the First Tongs

Ten Things, Say the Rabbis: As Abq Jew pointed out all the way back in 2012 (see Explain Me Three Things) - and has been confirmed in nearly every Abq Jew blog post before and since -


Abq Jew does not understand the universe. At all. Except for the answer 42 to the ultimate question of Life, The Universe, and Everything, the universe rarely crosses what remains, after all these years, of Abq Jew's mind.

In Pirke Avot (Chapters of the Fathers), the Rabbis state (Chapter 5, Mishna 8b):


Most of Chapter 5 deals with numerology: numbers, and their meanings. Starting with the perfect number 10:

  • With ten utterances the world was created.
  • There were ten generations from Adam to Noah.
  • With ten tests Abraham, our father, was tested.
  • Ten miracles were performed for our ancestors in Egypt, 
  • Ten [miracles were performed] at the [Reed] Sea. 
  • [With] ten trials did our ancestors test the Omnipresent, blessed be He, in the Wilderness.
  • Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in the Temple.

And the last '10' thing:


Ten things
were created on the Sabbath eve at twilight.

Now, even though the text may seem plain enough (some say: because the text seems plain enough), Abq Jew must fall back (ouch!) on his technical writing roots to make it into numbered lists:
Ten things were created on the Sabbath eve at twilight. They are:
  1. The mouth of the earth [which swallowed Korach and his co-conspirators]
  2. The mouth of the well [which accompanied Israel in the desert]
  3. The mouth of the donkey [which rebuked Balaam]
  4. The rainbow [that God left as a sign for Noah and his family]
  5. The Manna
  6. The staff [of Moses]
  7. The shamir worm [which could eat the hardest stone to build the Temple]
  8. The script [of the Ten Commandments and the Torah]
  9. The inscription [on the Tablets of the Ten Commandments]
  10. The Tablets themselves [which could miraculously be read from either side]
Some say: also
 Destructive spirits
The burial place of Moses
The ram of our father Abraham [which he slaughtered in place of Isaac]
And some say, also:
Tongs - which are made with tongs
Rabbi Dovid Rosenfield (mispocha? Abq Jew comes from a family of Rosenfields) comments on Torah.org:
[T]ongs deserve an honorable mention - if nothing else because they make an interesting diversion. :-)  I don't know if they too represent a merging of physical and spiritual realities, but they address one of those logical dilemmas which has plagued man throughout the centuries.
It takes a pair of tongs to shape a second pair over the fire. Who made the first one? Did the first blacksmith torture himself for the benefit of the future of mankind?
It too could have only been an act of G-d - not during the Six Days in which He created the natural world, but as a special gift to allow man to get on with the task of living and prospering in the world we know. 
In other words: the Rabbis postulated that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, gave us all we need to live in the world. The world - in terms of matter, of material, physical  things - is complete.

So everything's just fine, right?


Except for Thing #1
The mouth of the earth
[which swallowed Korach and his co-conspirators]

MyJewishLearning provides a swift summary of this week's parashah:
In this Torah portion, Korach and his followers accuse Moses and Aaron of taking power and prestige for themselves at the expense of the community. Moses defends himself against the rebels by saying that the Lord will make God’s presence known by how God kills these rebels. Then God opens the ground and swallows Korach and his followers.

Wait a minute!
The mouth of the earth was waiting for Korach?
Whatever happened to free will?

As it turns out, Abq Jew has already covered this in a previous (and recent) kvetch (see Ship of State Hits the Sand). Where he wrote
It turns out that Judaism, the religion (civilization!) we all know and love, has a lot to say about Fate and Fortune. But boiling it down in our Bunsens, what we draw from the beaker is 
There are theological problems with the idea of human free will. Jewish tradition depicts God as intricately involved in the unfolding of history. The Bible has examples of God announcing predetermined events and interfering with individual choices. Rabbinic literature and medieval philosophy further develop the notion of divine providence:
God watches over, guides, and intervenes in human affairs. How can this be reconciled with human free will?  
There is also a philosophical problem, which derives from the conception of God as omnipotent and omniscient: If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then God must know what we will do before we do it.  
Doesn’t this predetermine our choices? Doesn’t this negate free will? 
Our beloved Rabbi Akiva (Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 15) has cut to the chase:
Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted

Now Korah (the parashah, not the person)
has (arguably) bigger problems than free will. 


For, as Richard Elliott Friedman and the Documentary Hypothesis (see JEPD (and MMLJ) Visit ABQ) show us, what we've got this week are two stories wrapped as one.
Even more revealing is the way that the author of P transformed a JE story of a rebellion in the wilderness. The two are wound around each other in the Bible now like the two flood stories.
Which may be why a lot of it doesn't seem to make sense when we read it straight through. But in the meantime -

Justify has won the Triple Crown

North Korea and the USA have declared
peace in our time

Five (5) Jewish baseball players
have hit home runs on the same day

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Pushkin on Jeopardy!

Or, How Do We Know What We Know? Tuesday, May 22, 2018 is a date that will be implanted in Abq Jew's otherwise cloudy with a chance of meatballs memory until he forgets it.

For on that date, Abq Jew heard Alex Trebek - in the category 'Famous Russians' - provide the Final Jeopardy! answer

In November 1836 this writer got a letter naming him
to the Most Serene Order of Cuckolds;
in February 1837 he was dead.


And Abq Jew immediately, without thought or contemplation, correctly, from his greyhound-adorned couch, responded

Who is Alexander Pushkin?


Now Abq Jew must remind you that he is, by the skin of his teeth, a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Where he received, appropriately, a BS degree in Engineering & Applied Science.


And Abq Jew must remind you that he is, without honors for utterly failing at the somber task of academic writing - but with tremendous gratitude - a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS). Where he received, somehow, an MA degree in [Jewish] Education.


Where is Russian literature?

Abq Jew has read Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. Many years ago, and more than once. Just don't ask him who's who in patronymic or, for that matter, matronymic.


Abq Jew has also read Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment - also, many years ago. A delightful, thoroughly enjoyable axe-murder romp that reminds us that you can't chop your mama up in Massachusetts or in Saint Petersburg.

At least, not without some small measure of remorse.


There are those who, perhaps unkindly but not without some small measure of truth, suggest that Dostoevsky wrote one of his classics about Abq Jew

And Abq Jew has - of course - seen David Lean's wonderful, award-winning film made from Bernard Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. But he's never read the book.

The point - and it's a major one -  that Abq Jew is trying to make here is that


On Tuesday, May 22, 2018 ...
Abq Jew knew nothing of the life and work of
Alexander Pushkin, 'The Father of Russian Literature'.

So, Abq Jew hears you, his loyal readers, ask, where did his immediate 'Alexander Pushkin' response come from?

To answer that question, Abq Jew turns to the purported master of Knowns and Unknowns, our former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.

There are known knowns is a phrase from a response United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave to a question at a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) news briefing on February 12, 2002 about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. 
Rumsfeld stated: 
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. 
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. 
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know. 
And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. 
The statement became the subject of much commentary, including a documentary by Academy Award–winning film director Errol Morris.

In regular American English, Mr Rumsfeld claimed that there are
  1. Known Knowns = Things we know we know
  2. Known Unknowns = Things we know we don't know
  3. Unknown Unknowns = Things we don't know we don't know
What is missing from this series of statements?


4. Unknown Knowns = Things we don't know we know

How can there be such things - things we don't know we know? Where could such hidden knowledge come from? Where did such hidden knowledge go when we needed it? How can we get it back? How much will it cost? Will Medicare cover it?


The universe is full of mysteries.


Or, as Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel said -

Our goal should be to live life in 
radical amazement.
Get up in the morning and look at the world
in a way that takes nothing for granted.
Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible;
never treat life casually. 
To be spiritual is to be amazed.


But back to Final Jeopardy! The Jeopardy! Fan website tells us that, of the three contestants that day
  1. Two responded 'Who is Tolstoy?'
  2. One responded 'Who is Dostoevsky?'
Only Abq Jew, from his greyhound-adorned couch,
was able to question the answer correctly.


And in case you were wondering -
In the fall of 1836, Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (author of the play Boris Godunov and the novel Eugene Onegin) was facing scandalous rumours that his wife Natalia was having an affair with French military officer Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès. 
In amongst the scandal was a letter lampooning Pushkin. Heeckeren was accused of being the anonymous author of the lampoon. In an attempt to save Natalia’s reputation, Heeckeren married Natalia’s sister Yekaterina, but this was not enough to settle the conflict, and Pushkin was killed in the eventual duel. 
In the aftermath, Heeckeren was removed from Russia and lived out the rest of his life in France, serving as a Senator in the Second French Empire from 1852 to 1870.