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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thunderstorms rolled through Tuesday afternoon, possibly spawning tornados. Strong winds bent and broke healthy trees, sending them careening through powerlines, houses, and even several cars. People died. Because of two trees down on two different streets, I was trapped in my neighborhood and my wife, stranded in Grand Central Station, had a staggering five-hour journey to our area, but not our home. She did not make it to our house until after sunrise the next morning.
My bona fides: We lived through Superstorm Sandy on the south shore of Long Island in 2012, living in our flooded house without electricity for fifteen days. In our new location north of New York City, we lost power for eight days from the second nor’easter of the year to rip through the area and now, we just had four days without power from a line of powerful thunderstorms.
My heightened sense of fear of life without electrics paid off. My house has a built-in generator with its own emergency electrical panel and is powered by a huge propane tank. In the aftermath of Sandy, I had to walk a mile and a half to the closest powered gas station (courtesy of the National Guard) and stand in a long line to get my two gallons of gas for the generator.
My propane generator powers a few things such as the water well, the refrigerator, two outlets, and lights in the kitchen. My stovetop uses the same propane tank, leaving me the ability to cook meals. I can function, even though my cell phone and tablet are poor substitutes for a dedicated desktop connected to the internet.
Still, the loss of electrics throws us into a crisis and overlays our days with an ever-creeping sense of helplessness. Our neighbors are good people at heart and just as helpless. We shared a shot of bourbon as we commiserated over the fallen tree, our cars trapped on both sides. We shook hands with Tony, the contractor working on the house next door, who brought over his chain saws and set his crew to cutting up the tree and moving it out of the road.
The area in which I live is used to trees falling on powerlines. Most of us own generators, which are highly inefficient machines that generate small amounts of electricity while spewing toxic emissions and producing an ear-splitting amount of racket. Our wells require power to bring water into the house. We have temporary measures to ease us through the outages.
My immediate history is not bad luck; it is climate change. Following the science closely because of my job, the models predicted these vicious bouts of weather. Weather events, such as hurricanes hitting Long Island are expected, but the violence of these events is ratcheting up, such as the rain bomb of the Houston hurricane and the wind shears over Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. One hundred and five hundred-year storms are hitting some areas every eighteen months. The most extreme models of climate change are proving to be the most accurate. These events are not my or anyone else’s bad luck; these destructive storms are the outcome of years of spewing carbon into the atmosphere.
I ran into a representative from my local electric utility at a state convention last week, two weeks after the storm. With a brief description, she was able to pinpoint where I lived without me surrendering even a partial address. I asserted, and she confirmed that the present infrastructure was not designed for and had poor resiliency to cope with the climate patterns of the past several years. My experience and the utility’s experience are confirmations that these early effects of climate change are already profound, requiring billions of dollars in infrastructure investment and sweeping changes in human behavior.
I cannot escape these changes. Funny thing about climate: no matter where you are reading this essay, you are experiencing climate change and sometimes, its devasting effects. Like me, you depend upon electricity as an uninterrupted service. When one cell tower goes down, connectivity plummets, bringing work to a stuttering halt. Daily functioning stumbles and work-arounds prove themselves to be fantasies.
This is your life as well; I have a generator at least.
I am Rabbi Glenn Jacob and I am executive director of New York Interfaith Power & Light. Our mission is to inspire and engage people of faith and religious communities to actively steward and sustain our natural environment. In one unified voice of the world’s religions, we lead the battle to bring clean renewable energy to our communities, lobby for energy legislation, and teach others how to bring the many varied voices of our country together to save the planet. Please join us.
When I am travelling abroad, one of my favorite stops is always the markets and food shopping districts of towns and districts. Everything about an area, its geography, its demographics, its climate, and its economic life is in context. Children run and play, or pull their favorite adult towards the treat spot, whether it is a cart, a kiosk, or a stall. Some sellers look stressed while others smile and nod. Some even invite in a stranger like me and show off their wares and their produce. These experiences give me great pause and cause for reflection.
…Then the opposite happened. I was standing with my wife at my favorite butcher’s counter in the Italian Market in the Bronx, when the tour bus came through. I do not get many opportunities to visit my butcher in any given month and when I do make the trip, I stock up. I had a stack of chickens, cuts of beef, and a lamb shoulder all being wrapped in brown butcher paper as we waited patiently on the other side of the shoulder-high refrigerated cases with a scale perched on top.
In this great hall, the deli had a long line and no empty seats. The bar, with its long tables, was packed. The vegetable vendor was grabbing bags to weigh with blinding speed and there was a line to buy the freshly hand-rolled cigars. The place was full of happy noise. In the midst of this bustling cacophony, a bus-full of tourists came bursting in to watch and to learn.
“Huh,” I said to my wife. “So, this is what it looks like when we travel.”
At first, I was envious. I wanted to be the traveler, the one experiencing a different culture and a different people. Their questing eyes and curious looks made me look at the counters and the tables with fresh eyes, and appreciate the layers of peoples, communities, and culture that were woven into the fabric of the stalls, their employees, and their wares. After all, this is not some chichi Food Hall in Manhattan, but a neighborhood shopping district in the north Bronx.
Their guide was impatient to begin his spiel. He was waving his arms, motioning his charges to gather around and listen. I paid my bill. Picking up my heavy bags, I smiled and nodded hello, and added an “excuse me” or two as I maneuvered around the gathering without whacking anyone with my bags.
We still needed a couple of bottles of wine and my wife and I had agreed to indulge in a couple pastries. Then there was the pizza pan on display in the window and a question of whether we should buy a new one now or replace it later. The sun was bright and people were sitting outside enjoying the afternoon.
The visitors got a taste of an old neighborhood shopping district in the Bronx, which I thought was an excellent excursion. Still, their trip was just a taste because the cheese monger is a tiny storefront and there are at least a half dozen pastry shops and bakeries within two blocks of each other – and pizza, and bareks, and oysters on the half shell and a couple of decent expresso joints, and, and.
I suppose my travels abroad have helped me to appreciate what I have near to home. Even more, I have learned that there are a lot of people across the globe like me, who want to step into the day-to-day lives and cultures of other countries and just breath in the smells and sample the tastes. I may be imagining or embellishing, but when I visit such touchstones, everything seems to be delicious and worth savoring.