“A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton,” – Charles Darwin on God
“We should not immediately refute any idea which comes to contradict anything in the Torah, but rather we should build the palace of Torah above it.” – Rav Avraham Yitzchok Kook, the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Palestine
The fertilization tango
When does human life begin? Are there divine implications in the process? Before you make up your mind, how much do you know about what really happens when an egg is fertilized? It’s almost beyond belief in its complexity and mystery. When we delve it, right down to the part that gets mysterious, it invokes a metaphysical explanation.
Last week, President Trump extended Title VI protections to Jews – alongside other students of race, color or national origin – on campuses that receive federal funding. This kicked off what the media called “a firestorm.” It was actually two controversies for the price of one. First, do Title VI rules restrict freedom of speech. Ironically, this became a problem only when Trump protected Jews, even though it’s a 1964 ruling. Second, are Jews like the other protected classes? How so? What are Jews, exactly?
Are we a race, a nation, an ethnic group, an extended family, a religion, or just a bunch of folks who like bagels and lox? All of these fit some Jews, but none fit all Jews, so what is going on? Even Jews debate it all the time. Continue reading “What is a Jew?”→
This week, President Trump extended Title VI protections to Jews, alongside other students of race, color or national origin on campuses that receive federal funding. This kicked off what the media called “a firestorm.” It was actually two controversies. First, do Title VI rules restrict freedom of speech (which only came up as a protest when Trump protected Jews, even though it’s a 1964 ruling. No comment). And second, are Jews like the other protected classes? What are Jews, exactly?
This is a debate even among Jews: Are we a race, a nation, an ethnic group, an extended family, a religion, or just a bunch of folks who like bagels and lox? All of these fit some Jews, but none of these fit all Jews, so what is going on? The question is particularly poignant because whatever Jews are, they keep popping up on the stage of history for over 3500 years.
There is a document that defines the essence of Jewish identity, a charter for membership in the gang we call Jews, if you will. It’s called the Torah, and it insists it originates in a divine ideal of what people and the world can be. Jews call this concept “holiness,” but the word is too loaded. Whether you believe it is literally true or not, the proposition that this document originates from God explains the transcendent power and persistence of Jewish identity, even among Jews who reject it. Something mystical seems to be going on that preserves the Jews against all odds. The fact that this essence doesn’t fit any of the usual categories may also explain why Jews are also so persistently reviled and persecuted among other nations. Continue reading “Are Jews a race, religion, nation, ethnicity, tribe, or … what?”→
Jews in America are especially lucky on Thanksgiving. Who else gets a choice of turkey or brisket?
As the quintessential American holiday, it somehow also feels more Jewish than any other.
That may be because the first Thanksgiving had its roots in the Jewish fall harvest festival, Sukkot (which started on October 1st in 1621). Or maybe because the very name “Jew” stems from the word for “thanks” (Judah), and our word for “blessing” – beracha – is related to the word for “knee” – berach – which we take in the posture of gratitude. Thanksgiving also, obviously, resonates with Passover: big family meals, political debate, too much wine, and then a boisterous game of pinochle for pennies (isn’t that the universal tradition?). Oh yeah, and celebrating gratitude for our miraculous liberation from slavery.
The original pilgrims fled religious persecution on the model of the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. Puritans believed the Anglican Church had introduced too many impure practices. They sought to return Christianity to its roots in the Jewish Bible. America, in their narrative, was the Promised Land. They consciously imitated the Jews by trying to establish both a Holy Land and an earthly utopia, free from tyranny. They called it the New Eden. In their worship, civil life, and ideology they were at least as attached to the Old Testament as the new one.
A standard Puritan greeting was, “You’re a good Jew!”
They also imbibed the message of that Hebrew Bible: the human soul is enslaved to no earthly power.
“All the people on the face of the earth must know this: That only our bodies have been sent into exile and the servitude of rulers. But our souls have not been exiled or enslaved.
In the Bible a powerful king of the Philistines, Avimelech, harasses Isaac and his tribe in what is now Gaza by stopping up every well he digs. Nonetheless, Isaac retraces his steps and re-opens the wells. He thrives and grows wealthier. Avimelech eventually “comes to Isaac,” submitting to him to ask for a peace treaty.
The lesson is the stuff of Hollywood: eventually, the huge and powerful bow to the superiority of the small and brave who stick to their mission and their authenticity.
On this Thanksgiving, my personal gratitude is for the few and the just who still overcome the mighty and many, just as the movies promised me when I was a kid. I’m thankful that the very sign we have a soul is our yearning to be free. Its our connection to a divine force beyond forced bondage to any terrestrial thing.
Dedicated for SHABBAT PINCHAS 2779 to my father-in-law, Philip Oliver Richardson, Z”L”, and to his great-granddaughters, Noa and her sisters.
At first glance, Pinchas, like so many other weekly portions of the Torah, looks like a set of disparate pieces, thrown together with no particular logic. Some are boilerplate, others cinematically compelling. G-d rewards a zealot for a terrible act of violence and launches a war, but instead of taking us to the battle scene (the next week picks it up in Matot-Massei), a long, repetitive census interrupts the action. Five daughters provoke a revision in law and Moses dramatically transfers his power to Joshua, but a boring account of sacrifices deflate the end.
On closer inspection, though, Pinchas is a wonderfully coherent five-act play. Its hero isn’t a person but an idea, a revolutionary new concept of how a nation will transfer its legacy from one generation to another. In fact, at the risk of mixing metaphors, once we untangle (and then put back together) the threads, layers, cross-references, and perspectives on Israel’s legacy, a complex shimmering 3D tapestry – a hologram in which every part resonates with every other and every jot signifies the whole – comes into view. Continue reading “Pinchas: A five-act play about Jewish legacy”→
(On July 4, 1992, Shabbat Korach and the Fourth fell on the same day.I delivered this as a drash in a Conservative shul in upstate New York (Agudat Achim in Niskayuna) before I knew a lick of Rashi or Talmud, so please forgive its incredible ignorance and naivete. Please note this has been edited from the original notes.)
Moses is not the leader of a democracy, as this week’s parsha shows. How does a good Jewish citizen of America choose between allegiance to democracy or to the harsh autocratic theocracy the Torah seems to demand?
My father used to say to us, “It can turn on a dime.” He saw American hospitality to the Jews as a thin veneer, like Germany’s. It could be stripped away at any moment to reveal the anti-Semitism he was sure lurked beneath the surface. He was convinced any nation that suffered us to be their guests long enough would sooner or later turn on us, even this land where religious freedom was enshrined.* And you couldn’t bet against his paranoia. He had history on his side, 100-1.
I guess I inherited some of his dark vision and even afflicted my children with it. I still tell them half-jokingly, “Keep your passports active.”
Dad served as Gen. MacArthur’s mapmaker on the voyage of the USS Missouri to accept Japan’s surrender in 1945. In 1947, he led his army buddies in Brooklyn to gather guns to smuggle to Israel for the Haganah in their fight for independence from the Brits.
“Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” – Isaiah 6:9-10
I was the first person on Earth to predict the Trump presidency and explain why he was going to win in my blogs of March, June and July of 2016. My friends are still in awe at my 127.3% accuracy prophesying current events, up 12.6% in the last fiscal quarter. In fact, just this morning (October 8, 2018 at 9.07 am), I collected the downpayment on my Tesla ($20.25) from the bets my classmates made with me last Wednesday (Oct 3 at 10.34 am). Even though Senators Flake, Collins and Murkowski looked like they were going to vote against his nomination to the Supreme Court and the FBI was in the middle of its investigation, I still confidently assured them Judge Kavanaugh absolutely would be confirmed. I could have gotten really good odds at the time, but that would have been taking candy from babies and anyway, I’m forbidden to benefit from my gift. No Tesla. It’s part of the deal I made with the same Divine force that granted me my power.
In a moment, I’m going to tell you what else is going to happen. In fact, I’m going to lay out a complete prophecy describing the future of the Trump imperial reign and its impact on centuries to come. But first let me tell you how I knew the outcome of the Kavanaugh Kerfluffle. Prophets and magicians shouldn’t reveal their secret methods, but I don’t mind because you’re not going to believe me anyway. At best, you’re going to dismiss me as a formerly smart person who went whacko, or a religious nutball, or a paranoiac, or as my sore loser buddies did this morning, just someone who keeps getting lucky. Continue reading “Kavanaugh, Trump 2024, and the Messiah – or – How to be a prophet in your spare time”→
’כהיומ הזה’ – “…even like today” – Chanukah prayer
This is dedicated to my son, Avraham Benyamin (Ben) Porush, whose birthday is the first day of Chanukah and bris the last.
Why does the Talmud warn against teaching Greek to Jewish children?
The last pages of the Talmud volume Sotah portrays the decline of Jewish spirit after the destruction of the Temple. It marches through a long, dispiriting list of the horrible things that happen as Jews have to abandon customs that could only be kept alive when there was a spiritual center in Jerusalem and they lived as a nation inside their own borders.
In the middle of this lamentation (called Yeridas HaDoros – “decline of the generations”), the Talmud warns somewhat mysteriously that fathers shouldn’t teach Greek to their sons.What did the Sages have in mind? They can’t have meant Greek language, because the Rabbis were conversant with Greek and spoke it in the streets of Jerusalem. By the first century CE, and almost certainly earlier, it had displaced Hebrew as the lingua franca. And in various places in the Talmud, Greek is praised as the only language into which the Torah can be elegantly translated. Indeed, Sotah itself recounts a lament of Shimon ben Gamliel, the great Sage (50 CE) that shows how much the rabbis thought of Greek:
Yes, I was in DC for the Trump speech, and Hillary’s, Cruz’s and Kasich’s, to the 18,000 folks at AIPAC.
Yes, it must have been scary for you to see thousands of highly educated, mostly well-meaning and politically sophisticated Jews of all stripes stand and cheer for Donald Trump.
I don’t know what they televised, or what the cameras focused on, but I saw and heard some things that few seem to be talking about. What I saw gave me an insight into the Donald Trump phenomenon, and why – and maybe how – it can be stopped. Certainly, all other efforts so far have failed and, if anything, have helped his inexorable march to the White House. And yes, K., I think he can defeat the anti-telegenic Hillary Clinton. But how is it a buffoon who couldn’t pass a tenth grade civics test might be the next President of the United States?
As you know, because you so roundly berated me, I was looking forward to Trump’s speech hoping that there was more there there. I was hoping that Trump had some kind of plan, or strategy, to disrupt politics as usual with a populist and centrist vision, run the government as a rational business, reduce the debt, show strength to allies and enemies abroad, undo the Iran nuclear deal, and pick his way sensibly and free of party ideology or lobby money through domestic issues.
I came away convinced we’re on the cusp of a dangerous moment in history, one to which Jews should be especially alert.
The Verizon Center venue for AIPAC was perfect for Trump. We might as well have been attending a Wizards game, or the Barnum and Bailey Circus (which was there all this week). A runway from the locker room led to a slowly-rotating circular center stage. Hillary, Cruz, and Kasich simply walked unaccompanied down the long bull run and mounted the stage to standing ovations. Trump, ever the showman, made his entry surrounded by beefy private bodyguards, each as large as an NFL linebacker, wearing sunglasses and black suits. They weren’t Secret Service. Everyone had already entered the arena through Secret Service and Israeli security. He was entering the ring as if for a WWF bout. It was ridiculous, because he was trying to communicate … what? His life was in danger from these 18,000 Jews? He was more important than the others? More powerful? Was this a prizefighter, a rap star, a Mafia boss? Or maybe he really is a coward and needed the extra layer of protection.
The entry with cartoon bodyguards also told us that Trump profoundly misunderstood the setting he was in, his audience, and the occasion. It reminded me of D.B. Norton, the newspaper tycoon in Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe.” The movie should be required viewing for everyone in this election season. Norton raises a private police force in preparation for hijacking the John Doe populist movement and running for the presidency. His plan is to begin a fascist regime in the U.S. The 1941 movie is clearly reflecting on the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. Capra is warning America that we are vulnerable to the same forces at home.
As Trump took the stage about 15 yards away, I found myself both looking at him directly and also watching his Wizard of Oz magnification in the four enormous overhead monitors. Trump’s weird head was blown up even more than it is on tv. His crazy, swooping owlish comb-over, comb-forward and comb-back “do” is a doesn’t: it doesn’t hide his baldness when lights shine from atop. He’s fat. The blubber on his face, rippling like Jabba the Hutt’s, doesn’t seem to be connected to any muscle or bone, and certainly not to any emotion except self-satisfaction. The tanning bed orange face and white around the eyes are fluorescent. He’s an alien. You wouldn’t invite him back to the party unless it was to have something to titter about the next day, because he looks like the guy who eats all the hors d’hoeuvres. He might also make a play for your wife.
Imagine you told our sons when they were 10 years old to go up on stage in front of their friends and pretend to be president or emperor. They’d thrust out their jaws, tilt their chins up at an absurd angle, shake their jowls, purse their lips, puff themselves up, and nod in imperial self-affirmation. “Yes. That’s right. I’m the President. Uh-huh! That’s me. I’m the President. Do this! Do that! Drop some bombs. I’m smart! I have a good brain!” They’d have us howling.
One of Trump’s tics is to say, “Believe me. Believe me!” The more he said it, the more the crowd giggled. The broadcast mikes may not have picked it up. We giggled because he was so unbelievable and obvious a liar.
Then, at one point, the crowd lost it and howled in spontaneous unison. His script – and amazingly he read from a script, unprecedented in Trump world – had him claim that he read the Iran deal. But his compulsion to inflate took over and jumped out of its cage. “Yes, I read the whole thing,” he ad libbed. “That’s right. In fact, I know more about it than anyone else.” The AIPAC crowd had been living and breathing the Iran deal for at least a decade and had heard every manner of expert. They hooted. Trump, as is his wont, interpreted the derision as affirmation. “That’s right, that’s right!” he went on, misinterpreting the rolling laughter, his jowls quivering in delight.But then, I saw the Trumposaur. It had been let out to feed.
The Trumposaur is to blame for the moment that has given ammunition to the anti-AIPAC press. Trump’s script said, “And in this, the last year of Obama’s presidency …” Another ad lib erupted from Trump’s lips, one syllable: “Yay!” The crowd laughed, this time with him. The Trumposaur had awoken. “Obama is the worst thing that has ever happened to Israel,” it declared, totally winging it. The crowd rose to its feet in approval.
In AIPAC’s defense, because it’s hard to imagine this gang of thousands of Jews utterly losing its senses in unison, many if not most there did think the statement is patently true. Even The Washington Post has called Obama out for the disaster that is the Iran deal. Obama is the worst President for Israel since the Jewish State was founded. The applause erupted unanimously and spontaneously. We would have applauded had anybody said it. So don’t overestimate or misunderstand the applause or ovations for this line. These were not Trump supporters. It is AIPAC’s tradition to cheer for good rousing lines. Standing ovations are not endorsements. On the other hand, you can see how the cameras may have shown us being turned into a Trump mob. And maybe we were. Maybe you would have stood and cheered, too. Yet at the very moment I became part of the mob, I had this sudden schizoid flash of rational clear sight into Trump. I saw, I mean really saw, the Trumposaur in its naked, primitive state.
The Trumposaur is not a reasoning beast. It’s dumb, really. It neither plots nor plans. It leaps on every perceived threat or prey. It is impatient. Its antediluvian grotesquery is there in plain sight. It’s too big to hide and too big to need to hide, after all. It is all instinct and impulse and appetite and forward lurch.
You would think a hunter would need to be aware of its surroundings and have keen sight, but it’s almost blind, which explains Trump’s inability to see what’s in the mirror.
When he perceives an attack, his hearing is quite keen, but he is mostly deaf, which explains his dumbfounding inability to hear howls of execration, his shouting over others, his inability to hear a question asking for specifics. It explains his David Duke excuse (the sound was muffled) and his even more astounding string of idiot lines whenever he’s asked a question about the real world outside himself, about hot button issues like abortion or immigration, about foreign or domestic policy requiring knowledge of the actual workings of the Supreme Court, executive branch, policy, or precedent. NYC cabbies and newly-minted citizens understand the U.S. government better.
The Trumposaur’s primary sense is olfactory. It not only smells the rising blood of the mob, it knows how to bring it out, to get it flowing, to let it bleed, the better to sense its prey and feed. Its only goal is to get bigger and stay big. And to this end, to get the blood flowing, almost any rising emotion will do: fanaticism, hatred, outrage, revenge, envy, adulation, injustice, and, this is critical, fear. Fear is very effective.
Fear summoned the Trumposaurus in the first place. In the very earliest stages of the campaign, when Trump was just running a test flag up the flagpole, before even Fox gave him any significant air time, CNN seized on Trump. It gave him billions of dollars of free media coverage. I don’t know what they were thinking. Maybe they thought Trump was the most ridiculous of the clowns coming out of the Republican Party clown car. Maybe they thought Trump was a good boogey man who would sell a lot of airtime, like his cousin Godzilla. Maybe they thought if they could prop up Trump as a presidential candidate they would deliver the presidency to Hillary. But like any good Greek chorus, they amplify what “The Donald” says, even when they think they are providing counterpoint. The lead story of CNN virtually every hour of every day for months has been Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. They’re doing a great job making him President.
Even Obama berated the press (March 28, 2016) for its irresponsibility in feeding the Trumposaur. CNN became furious and defensive. Yesterday, they turned on their favorite son to defend themselves. One of their anchors defended the coverage of Trump’s campaign because it was like their coverage of Obama in 2008. But no matter. The effect has been, and continues to be, pumping up the Trumposaur. Trump is catnip to the media and he knows it. The media just blink and bloviate in surprise and dismay at his success, caught like deer in the headlights, unwilling to admit they’re feeding him.
The Trumposaur has no idea who he is or how to behave in his guise as a candidate or even as a person. He sees everything and anyone coming at him as either enemy or food. His two modes are fight or feed. Like a frightened boy who happens to be a bit slow and gigantic for his age, he has no idea how he really looks or why people respond to him the way they do. Some edge away slowly when they see the Trumposaur. He’s found by using his size, and puffing himself up even larger, and making loud noises, he can scare away much of the opposition. Those who still come at him he pounces on or eats. On tv, Trump responds to threats by yelling louder, interrupting, bullying.
The beast fills its human host with pathological vanity, narcissism, insensitivity, appetite, and fear. It bloats his belly and distorts his features. It invades his brain so that his world is seen through lizard eyes as a jungle of predatory deals, lawsuits, bankruptcies, deceitful associates, partners, and wives. Look at his pathetic trail of lawsuits in his bio on Wikipedia. Like Mussolini, though he’s had multiple wives and lovers and boasts about them, you have the feeling his promiscuity is just lizard promiscuity. He lurches to mate with any woman who enters his field of vision. He tried to court Princess Diana.
To survive, the human Donald Trump has had to create a character, a skin, a persona, to enable the Trumposaur to interact with its terrifying environment. This persona also gives voice, if barely articulate, to the impulses of the Trumposaur. It serves as bait for its prey. It explains why the persona is always interrupting himself with some boastful, mindless ad lib. It is the Trumposaur trying to sound human. Meet “The Donald.” And I really mean the scare quotes.
No rational attempt to defeat the Trumposaur has done anything but propel him because the Trumposaur has primitive magic. His call summons its prey, the voting, democratic populace on which the Trumposaur, like any good populist demagogue, feeds – otherwise known as the mob. When “The Donald” in one of the earlier debates said, interrupting himself, “I LOVE the uneducated!” he really, really meant it.
And the secret of a mob is that we are all candidates for the mob while denying we could ever be part of one. Are you going to point to a roomful of people and single out exactly who belongs to the mob? Are you sure membership in the mob is reserved for those others, those _________ (fill in the blank): uneducated, unwashed, hillbilly, redneck, naïve, young, Southern, Western, Midwestern, Rust Belt, urban, working class, unemployed, union members, seniors, veterans, working poor, rural, Texans, racists, sexists, soccer moms, angry white men, Republicans, disenfranchised …? No, we’re too educated, sentient, refined, knowing, and civilized to be part of that mob.
But we’re wrong. Trump has the numbers to prove it. His constituency is growing, cutting across all classes and the neat little demographic niches that pollsters and pundits so love, including the educated, lifelong Democrats, women, and even some minorities. That’s why all the syndicated columnists, party mothers, analysts and smart broadcasters not only get it wrong, but are FEEDING THE BEAST. I know PhD’s, billionaires, doctors and lawyers who say they’re going to vote for him. If you don’t know anyone who will, you’re living in a bubble.
That’s because we all carry a lizard brain around in us. It’s there, waiting for the right signal to emerge. Yes, we spend a lot of time filtering it, caging it, burying it, forgetting it. But it’s there. Why else do democracies persistently vote themselves into tyrannies? Why do mobs form? Against all reason.
Acknowledging this is the secret to defeating the Trumposaur. There are only a few routes left to slaying the Trumposaur, now. The first is to starve him. That would require CNN and Fox and even PBS and all other media obsessed and addicted to him to ignore Trump, take the needle out of their arms, turn the cameras off him. Ain’t gonna happen.
The second is procedural and bureaucratic: to hope the Republican party has the wit and courage to turn away Trump’s assault through its own arcane nomination procedures. As Sen. Lindsey Graham said to AIPAC, the Republican party may have to lose an election to save the Republic. Do you want to leave the fate of the nation to the wisdom and courage of the Republican Party? Anyway, as I watch (3.25pm PST Mar 30, 2016) Trump has emerged from his meeting with the RNC. I bet he’s cut a deal with them.
We might hope the Trump is exposed as a clown by the broadcast media more convincingly than he already has been, but I don’t see how. They’re trying awfully hard with little success at finding the line between negative coverage that just gets him more votes, and really wounding him. The posture of The New York Times and CNN and Fox and The Washington Post and all the stately newspapers and news channels that disapprove of Trump openly, is disgustingly pathetic, unconvincing, and misses the point. Forget about my name-calling. The attention they pay to him in attempt to quell his rising force is demonstrably, empirically having the opposite effect. His voter base is growing. He even plays the victim and appeals to how unfairly he’s being treated, poor guy, by the media, the RNC, his opponents, debate moderators … whoever. It works to get him more votes because it feeds everyone’ sense of outrage at the powers that be, that hazy “Establishment.”
We can hope Trump realizes he never wanted to be president anyway, and goes home to parlay his success into more money and fame, but his megalomania is being pleasured too much for that to happen. Maybe we could have turned the tide a few months ago. It’s too late now.
The real solution is much harder. In some senses, it has nothing to do with Trump. It has to do with everyone, you and me and the media as individuals, and all our friends. We have to stop being astonished, like deer in the headlights, stop pretending we’re confused, and stop being dismayed, and stop being so goddamned superior than those Others who are voting for Trump. We have to stop supposing that all the millions of people who have already voted for Trump are simply ill-informed or stupid or credulous fools. We have to stop thinking We are not Them. We need to dig deep, introspectively, to feel the draw of The Donald, the pull of his authoritarianism, his promise of dark redemption. We need to tune in and commune with the lizard brain inside us. We need to feel the logic of his allure beyond logic and stop being so goddamned civilized. We need to admit, before it’s too late, that “The Donald” is an ultimate disruptor. He defies all civilized or political wisdom and decorum because he defies all logic. Then, and only then, can we steel our instincts and sharpen our weapons to fight The Beast in its own jungle. History, and Trump’s march, prove fairness and objectivity and reason and dignity and elitist judgments and the decorous belief we’re above the fray are no match for a tyrannical bully, a Trumposaurus Rex. We have to join the fray.
The alternative, I’m afraid, ends tragically as it always does when the beast summons the mob. First, the Muslims. Then the Mexicans. Then the blacks. Then the Jews. Or maybe the Jews go before the blacks. Then other enemies of the state. Then his personal enemies. How many times do we have to see the film? Don’t think his Jewish grandson will protect Jews, any more than all the Jewish philosophers and scientists and Jewish good Germans saved themselves from Hitler. Once you unleash the lizards in all of us, no one is safe.
Our pal Stephen Berk (Professor of History at Union College) has shown that throughout the Diaspora, with the precision of a machine, every four generations after Jews immigrate to a country they are slaughtered or expelled or both. By my count, we’re the Fourth Generation in America.
I’d say cheers as I usually do, K., but let us leave the cheers for the mob.