The Social Contract and the Pandemic

The life of the spirit has taken a terrible beating these past few decades. From teaching MBA candidates that “Greed is good” to the hyper-politicization of moral stances for purposes of attracting votes and onward to the monetization of, well, everything, integrity and ethics have been downgraded in importance and denigrated as superfluous. In fact, some argue that having business ethics condemns integral people to lower incomes and worse prospects. As a result, the bond between the letter and the intent of laws, principles, and proclamations has come under ever expanding assault. The concept of the social contract, the spirit of the public square, has been abrogated.

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The pandemic is a good (which is to say, appalling) example of what happens when the Social Contract is broken. The corruption of the social contract was laid bare when the first wave of the pandemic rushed into New York City. The call was for a “shelter in place” order, a demand that all individuals lock themselves in their domiciles, emerging only for necessities when delivery was impossible. NYC became a ghost town as wisps of essential workers made their way to and from work with trepidation. The social contract was that if everyone sheltered in place, government would use the time to put in place protocols such as personal protection equipment, and implement initiatives, especially contract tracing to extinguish the spread. These steps would ensure that when everyone emerged from lockdown, economic, cultural, and social life would be able to restart safely, albeit slowly and carefully.

If the government response is an abrogation of the Social Contract, there are also examples of the broken contract at the individual level. Compare the Covid19 response to the easiest to understand functioning social contract: the obligation of the shopping cart. The spirit of cooperation between those who patronize the same store obligates the patrons to return the cart for other shoppers to use, who in return will do the same. Returning a shopping cart to the corral or abandoning it in the parking lot is a choice where there is no reward or punishment. Those who cannot honor the social contract without threat of punishment are bad actors.

Wearing a mask in public is an equivalent social contract. Currently, there is no exercised punitive government-sanctioned penalty for not wearing a mask in public places; owners and managers of venues make a choice to expel the unmasked. The reasons given for defying the mandate of wearing a mask ignore or even deny the existence of a social contract. The excuses do not mention any obligations that the community adopts. “My rights” trumping the social contract of wearing a mask is a clear case of the broken bond between the letter of the mandate and the spirit of the mandate. The same malignant dynamic plays out when gun-toting individuals mass in front of state capitols demanding the governor open businesses. Their demand of “their rights” is a repudiation of participation in social contract between fellow inhabitants of the land.

The social contract during this pandemic has not been fulfilled. Too many politicians and bureaucrats failed to accept and act on their responsibilities. Individuals and certain politicians decided their response to the pandemic would be based on politics and economics when the social contract obligated them to respond with science. Over 100,000 U.S. citizens have died thus far, and tens of thousands of them unnecessarily. The counts will continue to rise.

Social Contracts are not theoretical constructs; they are statements of human integrity. They are valid, powerful, and necessary components for any human endeavor. When such contracts are broken, institutions and communities are weakened and sometimes broken. In rare cases such as a pandemic, people die because of the breaking of the bond between letter and spirit.

A Little Bit of Vocabulary

Book whisperers have suggested that struggling with difficult texts is as much a moral or ethical discipline as an intellectual one. Real questions cannot be explored with simplistic solutions nor can real dilemmas be resolved with quaint moral exhortations. The issues of the day require drive, focus, and perseverance. Difficult texts are the result of complex problems that defy easy solutions.

To limit the amount of “mind candy” one consumes is good for the soul as much as the brain. Unfortunately, the online book purveyors push reams of pulp that make finding the better reads akin to hunting for the contact lens you dropped before putting it in your eye – you are going to cover a lot of territory before you find one. Online book sites have become unwieldy and often unusable without a good amount of preparatory work.

I finished Donald Harman Akenson’s “Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds” after several years of picking it up and putting it down. The hardcover comes in at 623 pages of text, notes, and appendices. He had a few things to say.

Dr. Akenson’s breadth of vocabulary is extraordinary. When I bought the book at Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, PA, they placed one of their paper bookmarks in the text. I kept a running list of vocabulary for which I did not know the definition on the back of that bookmark. I have heard of some of these words but was forced to admit I did not know the meaning. After page 294, I was forced to switch to an Excel file because the list kept growing. The last word comes from page 400.

Below is my vocabulary list from Dr. Akenson. I offer it as a little meat and potatoes instead of the usual tasteless pudding.

semioticlapidaryapposite
prolixatrabilioustenterhooks
palimpsestreliquaryequilibrations
valetudinariananodynepelf
parallaxhectoringanechoic
conflateaphoticbenisons
picaresquecolporteurspropinquity
verisimilitudefasciclevergers
aniconicadamantineotiose
stratigraphyincarnadinehermetic
salvicmeretriciousapothegm
politesseimbricationperduring
brumeusucaption 
guyingautochthonous 

After a weekend of protests over the murder of George Floyd

In the protests over the state-mandated lockdowns a week earlier, the protesters were shouting, “My rights! My rights!” Pretending they were innocent victims, they were asking us to consider, “What are my rights?”

The correct response at the time was, “If you want rights enforced, then what are your responsibilities in return.” President Kennedy had something to say on the subject.

Then came the murder of George Floyd. All the arguments over rights and responsibilities were put under a glaring focus that played across our screens. In this light, the arguments over rights are selfish and shallow, coming from a place of no fear while parading around government buildings fully armed. Few if any were arrested.

“Where are my rights?” The African American community is asking a more fundamental question. It is the same question they have asked since they arrived here on slave ships: “Where are my rights?”

Where are they, indeed. As the protests across the nation demonstrate, the rights of Black men and Black women are lacking in most every metropolitan city from coast to coast, and in the rural outposts in between. I am surprised that I have not seen a protest sign saying, “Do I even have rights?”

“Do citizens have rights in the United States of America?” On paper, you do; however, in the streets, it may depend on the color of your skin.

A Prayer in the Time of Pandemic

 “Every hand that we don’t shake must be a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern.

Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise. 

So, as we keep a level of social distance, let us all remain spiritually near to each other, by responding to this health emergency with love and care for everyone’s well-being. 

May Adonai give us the wisdom to continue to react appropriately to this crisis and heal those who have been infected.” 

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

B’nai David-Judea Congregation

Los Angeles, CA

The Animals of the Serengeti

East Gate, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

You are viewing an iconic photo that I snapped with my little point-and-shoot camera as I took a “happy stop” at the main gate at Serengeti National Park. While people come from around the world to snap pictures of the animals of the Serengeti, I was struck by the most pervasive creature of all, the human visitor. You will see humans in the back of safari vehicles from early in the day until 18:00 every evening, when the travelers are either gone from the park or corralled into their camps.

In hopes of explaining the response of the Tanzanian economy to the foreign visitors to the park, this little shop brings their experience with tourist needs into sharp focus. Looking closely at the windows from left to right, one can identify the priorities of the tourist as liquor, wine, beer, and Pringles. You may read whatever commentary you would like into those documentary facts.

The Masai have been removed from the national park and the wildlife is resurging. The Masai do not hunt wildlife and eat it (for the most part), but their cattle herds were destructive and competed with the herbivores for grasses on the endless plain. The few roads in the park are lightly maintained, remaining in kidney-crushing condition, discouraging vehicles and promising “African massages” to the few who dare to speed.

Unfortunately, climate change is having a significant impact on the Serengeti. The seasons of the region are long dry, short wet, short dry, and long wet. January is supposed to be the short dry season, yet it rained every day, confusing both flora and fauna. Zebra and wildebeests are supposed their birth their babies altogether at the end of the short dry and the beginning of the long wet. They did not know when to drop. The sex of crocodiles in the egg is determined by the outside ambient temperature. The higher the temperature, the more eggs will hatch as male. The warmer temperatures accompanying climate change has created a severe lack of females. The migration itself is under siege, an endless counterclockwise pattern of grazing across the plains. Short grass benefits the grazing animals and the long grass benefits the carnivores. The misplaced rains are making chaos of the grazing cycles.

This park is dependent upon the tourists who come with their cameras and their appetites. The tourist fees and opportunities to camp in environmentally conceived camps sustain one of the best maintained and better protected parks in East Africa. There is nothing quite like listening to cape buffalo munch grass next to your tent in the middle of night, who will remind you with a delightfully large buffalo patty just outside your tent flaps in the morning.

Someone tell me though: Is Pringles an international sensation that far-ranging tourists just cannot put down?

A Jewish Response to Climate Change

Under the auspices of New York Interfaith Power & Light, I’ve launched a new initiative, Aklim – A Jewish Response to Climate Change.

The old national initiative, Coalition of the Environment and Jewish Learning (COEJL), is defunct and its website is no longer functional. An updated approach to Jews and Climate Change is long overdue.

Of all of the religious traditions in the United States that have taken a stand on climate change, that it’s real and it’s human-made, the Jewish organizations have been one of the least active. This inertia needs to be rectified.

There are many great causes out there that deserve the imprint of the moral certainty of religion. All of these great issues of social justice are for naught though if we don’t address climate change. Indeed, many of these issues that stand as priorities today are effects of climate change. Immigration from Central America is rooted in climate change destroying the agricultural cycles in Honduras and Guatemala, leading to poverty and starvation. The corrupt regimes could not respond. The Syrian civil war begins with the rapid desertification of marginal lands in Southern Syria. Assad forcefully declined to help his migrating people, and years of frustration burst into protest and violence.

Politicians do not want to touch climate change. Climate change mitigation is messy and the U.S. pricetag begins at trillions of dollars. Further, the Fossil Fuel industry donates huge sums to political campaigns. They also fund political action committees to sabotage politicians who do not adhere to the fossil fuel industry directives, raising up challengers to unseat established legislators.

In one voice, the religious traditions need to rise up and place climate change as THE priority. It is time that all the Jewish denominations added their wherewithal to the struggle.

Lessons of the Book Search

In the process of researching a new article-maybe-book, a down-the-rabbit-hole investigatory thread emerged. The origin of the thread begins with the novelist Herman Wouk (The Winds of War), a 20th century author of deserved literary repute. Mr. Wouk was also an Orthodox Jew, proud and practicing his faith so personally that he wrote a non-fiction text “This is My God.” His book is a well-written introduction to a Jewish theistic God concept, which is an accessible recommended read. In his introduction, Mr. Wouk explains  that his book is in response to a derogatory text promoting agnosticism. The hunt began.

The book that invokes Herman Wouk’s ire has almost disappeared from library shelves in the first decades of the 21th century; in contrast, Mr. Wouk’s book is still in print and easily available. Homer W. Smith was a biologist in the first half of the 20th century who wrote three books of some publishing success. The third was “Man and His Gods,” published in 1955 and running at 485 pages before the index. However, what makes the book stand out is that the Forward is written Albert Einstein. The book sold well in its day.

As Dr. Einstein stated, Professor Smith attempts “to portray man’s fear-induced animistic and mythic ideas with all their far-flung transformations and interrelations.” One of the major arguments of the book is that Western religions are a magnet for all destructive fears that have haunted humankind. Further, these religions are also a significant broadcaster of these pernicious narratives that promulgate terrible results such as war and widespread unhappiness. The book is a thoroughgoing condemnation of religion and its application up through the beginning of the 20th century.

One can clearly understand why Herman Wouk despised this text.

There is no doubt that Professor Smith was extraordinarily well-read. Besides the Bible and biblical scholarship, he was intimately familiar with Enlightenment philosophers, the volumes of Gibbon’s “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Darwin along with his milieu of detractors and supporters, Medieval magic and literature on the Devil, literary criticism, Christian theology and metaphysics. He saves some of his highest praise for the eleventh edition of Encylopedia Britannica, published in 1910-1911. (p. 483)

“Man and His Gods” is an archetypal text of its time. The writing is long-winded, and the grammar is complex, which was typical of the academic presentation of the day. Reviewers of that decade would declare that the book was erudite and well-written, whether or not they agreed the provocative argument.

The thesis is that knowledge and rationalism trump religion and superstition. Most of the text is a review of the religions of Western world and the Ancient Near East through history using the lens of 20th century rationalism. Professor Smith hoped to put the final nail in the coffin of superstitious religion with this book. He did not.

A funny thing happened though, which is why there was a hunt. “Man and His Gods” has nigh disappeared. In a dash of irony, I believe that the book would have certainly slipped away totally, despite a forward by Einstein, if Herman Wouk had not mentioned the text by name in his introduction. If Mr. Wouk had simply dropped a few sentences explaining his angry motivation for writing his book, time would have accomplished his goal for him.

I went searching for the text. My university lists a copy of Dr. Smith’s text in its catalogue, having purchased it in 1956. According to their records, the book was never checked out of the library. After I and the university librarian perused the shelf, we both concluded that the book had been stolen, probably decades ago. The Library of Congress (Card no. 52-5512) has a copy, buried in one of their offsite repositories. Having access to an academic national search function, someone located a copy at SUNY-Buffalo. Ten weeks after an initial request, I was holding the book.

The book did not meet my needs though. I was seeking a text that explained and promoted agnosticism in the 20th century. Dr. Smith’s text is the other side of the coin, exclusively attacking theism and orthodox religions. He states that rationalism is the better/best way, yet he offers no arguments for this stance. While the book may have made a splash at the time of publication, this lack of a positive argument may explain why the book disappeared from the great discussions on religion, culture, and individual relevance.

Having read through the book only to find the book only to find disappointment, I am reminded of a quote from the end of Ecclesiastes. “The making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh.” (Eccl. 12:9) Homer W. Smith taught me two lessons: first, erudition easily falls into hubris and second, pre-determined conclusions can produce a myriad of ever-escalating mistakes and misreadings.

Mr. Wouk’s book also taught me a lesson: Anger is a tool and it should never be a reason.

Testimony before the NY State Senate Committee

Testimony before the NY State Environmental Conservation Committee

12 February 2019

I am Rabbi Glenn Jacob, and while I am executive director of New York Interfaith Power & Light – an organization dedicated to passing climate science-based legislation from a religious perspective, I come here first representing the initial wave of climate refugees in New York State. In 2012 on 29 October, Superstorm Sandy slammed my neighborhood in Oceanside, Long Island with a five-foot surge of water. My house had over $100,000 worth of damage, of which $18,000 was covered by flood insurance. I told my wife the day after the storm that we would move, and in November 2017, I moved from 25 miles east of Manhattan to 40 miles north.

My personal experience is framed in my religious perspective. I and my organization are non-partisan, representing about 15 different religious denominations from Suffolk County on Long Island to the city of Buffalo, with all points, rural, suburban, and urban in between. The message we bring is that climate change is a moral issue and the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) is a matter of personal and professional integrity.

Contrary to caricatures, most synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, and gurdwaras have no issue accepting scientific facts, concepts, and conclusions. Climate change is real, climate change is manmade, and the only question is what is humanity going to do? To do nothing, to keep the status quo is evil in religious language. It is the path to more harm and danger to human life – deliberating allowing destruction is evil, a human, preventable evil.

The good news, to borrow the term from the Protestant Tradition, is that we have the knowledge base, the technology and the wherewithal to address climate change. Everything to address climate change is in some sort of readiness in New York State, from detailed plans for job creation to the equitable spread of resources, to energy infrastructure initiatives. The only thing we have lacked in the last few years is the political will.

Our religious traditions do not tolerate half-truths, because they have no integrity. To say that we are going to lose jobs in the fossil fuel industry is to deny that we are bringing entirely new energy industries into the state. To say that the CCPA will cause prices to rise is a half-truth as well. We already balk at paying for the damages of evermore powerful storms and violent temperature swings. Roads meant to last 20 years are lasting 15 years or less; we have yet to fix the most expensive damage from Sandy. Do you want to spend the taxpayers’ money solving the crisis or do you want to spend ever increasing sums patching roads, wires, sewers, channels, and buildings, which we see are already falling short of completion, just to maintain the status quo?

Whether you want to or not, you will be spending large sums of taxpayer funds on climate change in the coming years. The climate science and our real-world experience confirm this conclusion; no prophecy is necessary. Climate change is more than a technical issue, a reasonable issue, or a political issue; it is an unavoidable moral issue. The question from your religious constituents is: Are you going to spend state funds with integrity, namely the CCPA and its goals to address climate change, or are you going to squander the short twelve-year window we have to address climate change? We are the first generation to confront climate change and we are the last generation that can address climate change.

As I stated in the beginning, the CCPA is a matter of integrity, the integrity of the political will to act.

A Day after Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre

Our tradition offers words of consolation, but we may not hear them until we can explain our pain. The wounds are raw and the deaths are fresh. At this time of aninut, the period before burial, we feel nothing and yet, we feel everything.

  • Jews have enjoyed three hundred years fear from fear of communal violence in a blessed land until yesterday.
  • We are proud to be Jews, but we thought we were seen as Americans first in this century.
  • And like all people of good will in the United States, we believed that reason and optimism would overcome hatred and paranoid delusion.

We were not wrong.

The murderer may be a random actor, but I cannot see this senseless massacre as an isolated moment. The Sikhs were gunned down in Wisconsin. The black church members were slaughtered in the basement of their church in Charleston, SC. All of them and all of us were easy targets for hatred. We were people who believed in the possibilities of humanity and in the hope that prayer, good deeds, and acts of compassion could heal a divided world. We met the world with open arms instead of loaded guns.

The murderers were wrong though. The Sikh Gurdwara re-opened as did the AME Church. People came from all walks of life to sit with the survivors and to stand with the mourners. You must understand – a gun can kill a human, but it cannot extinguish humanity.

Historians have proven in European history that when Jews were persecuted, the country was already in or headed into great turmoil. The community of Jews was like a canary in a coal mine, a harbinger of great suffering to come. However, the persecutions in Europe were all, either state sponsored or church sponsored. History has no example of the great patchwork of ethnic and religious communities that make up the United States. Are the Sikhs, the African-American Christians, or the Jews the canary or all of us canaries? No, they are not and no, we are not. Our murdered brothers and sisters are victims and, as our tradition states, they are martyrs for their beliefs. We mourn with their families, friends, and congregation.

The massacre in Pittsburgh was directed at all American Jews. I hear that message, acknowledge it and hold my loved ones ever closer. The pain is personal, tapping into a history of martyrdom that I know far too well. I have known Jew-hatred, intimately. I have witnessed the hatred of the other through my eyes and my ears. Some people fear the world, and no law or principle will sway them from their hatred.

Please remember the great deeds our country has accomplished though. This nation has allowed the Jews to flourish as no other country in history has. The United States has offered the same opportunity to many, many other communities, which has made us as Jews doubly proud. We must pledge not be silenced by the hatred and the violence until it has been diminished and dismissed from the public ways and public discourses of this great nation.

In the coming days we will comfort our people and we will pray. Even more, we encourage our resolve to continue the fight for dignity and respect for all peoples who live within these borders. We must not respond to this tragedy with silence.

To our friends and well-wishers, please join with us as we pray, sit with us as we mourn, and when these first days have passed, join with us and let us together return grace to this nation. Nothing could give us greater solace.

End of the Holocaust Generation

I officiated at a funeral on Friday that I realized afterwards may be a consequential moment. The deceased was in her 90s and she was a Holocaust survivor. She was a very young child when Hitler came to power. The significance is that this may be my last funeral a Holocaust survivor, as most of them have passed.

I have buried a number of aged survivors over the years and always, the funeral and internment were unique points of sacredness. These funerals have been more complex than most, with unusual layers of meaning that have been shared but will not be spoken, and with more layers of meaning that have never been spoken and will be left unsaid, even though we, the next generation, know the content. God: mentioning God at a such a funeral is a minefield of accusation, futility, anger, regret and in rare moments, reconciliation. Yet, they requested a rabbi to officiate.

Holocaust humor is an extreme form of gallows humor, which often circles around the subject of God and God’s apparent impotence to save the Jews. While gallows humor seems to transcend generations, Holocaust humor appears to be quite specific to the immediate generation. I have had this bit of Holocaust humor sitting in my files for years, waiting for an appropriate context. The piece was left unused because the humor is biting and quite frankly, the opposite of what most people consider to be humor. Even more, placing the piece between paragraphs of context before and paragraphs of explanation after diminished the stark power of this humor.

The Holocaust generation is almost gone though, and this piece, with its contradiction and condemnation, should be preserved.

“A Jew dies. He ascends to the heavens and meets God. Standing before the Throne of Glory, the Jew tells God a Holocaust joke, but God does not laugh. When he realizes that God is not laughing, the Jew shrugs and says, “I guess you had to be there.”

My younger colleagues will never know the privilege of officiating at a funeral for Holocaust survivors. It is a privilege I never wanted and one for which a person could never prepare. Their presence in my rabbinate has been a blessing.