The Arts and Finding the Ultimate Paradise

One of the arts’ significant advantages is seeing what the self may have in common with others.

After listening to Piya Chattopadhyay’s Sunday Magazine on CBC Radio, I felt I had to write to her. The segments were excellent individually and also as a whole. They seemed to dialogue with each other.

To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara,In her new book, To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara, a novelist rooted in Hawaii, speaks with Piya about the themes she explores in her recent work – freedom, utopia, borders, and disease over three centuries through three different versions of the American experiment, three couples of different socioeconomic backgrounds and sexual orientations. Yanagihara also comments on the damages caused by the pressures of males in our society expected to suppress all feelings.

 

Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John KoenigPiya then interviewed John Koenig, author of Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, about creating new words for feelings that previously have not had any way to be expressed. Koenig makes these words borrowing from and putting together elements from many different languages. He points out that every language brings a different perspective, and they all have the potential to enrich our understanding of the world if we only care to see it.

 

The Next Civil War by Stephen MarchePiya’s next interviewee, Stephen Marche, has written The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future. Marche tries to shine a light on the present state of the US political situation by analyzing data and interrogating and interviewing nearly two hundred interviews with experts, civil war scholars, military leaders, law enforcement officials, secret service agents, agricultural specialists, environmentalists, war historians, political scientists, and the man-on-the-street.

 

However, Marche calls it speculative non-fiction, reminding us repeatedly that although his book is based on “facts,” he can not predict anything based on these “facts.” In this sense, I find it more similar to Hanya Yanagihara’s imaginative fictional novel.

Yanagihara frames her book around the search for Paradise and how the United States embodies that dream for many people.

“Paradise” like “joy” can be an inner state accessible anywhere. The Bible speaks about Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden. But there is a way back there for each of us. Every week on the seventh day, one can bring an oasis of paradise quality into one’s life by engineering that total escape from our mundane cares. We call it the Sabbath.

Over the long term, we all continue to pray and strive for a world free of violence, war and pestilence, the ultimate Paradise.

 

Review of the CNN documentary on Jerusalem:  The Rise and Fall of Herod the Great 

The second instalment of the CNN series on Jerusalem: the City of Faith, entitled 39 BC, The Rise and Fall of Herod the Great *1 tells the story of Jerusalem from the point of view of the ruling Kings of the period, their ambitions and jealousies: Herod, King of Israel, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and her Roman consort Mark Antony, Emperor of Western Rome and the ambitious Octavius.

Holyland Model of Jerusalem. A model of Herod’s Temple adjacent to the Shrine of the Book exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The program makes for stimulating tv filled with plots and battles for supremacy between Egypt, Israel, and Rome, recounted by excellent contemporary historians.

King Herod married the Hasmonean princess Mariamne in a plot to be loved and accepted by the Israelites. However, Herod’s love did not prevent him from murdering his wife, their five children and anyone else he suspected as a rival. He was also part of the global web of power relationships, an ally of Marc Antony of Rome and mortal enemy of Cleopatra. These relationships are amply elaborated in the CNN plot.

He also tried to build his way out of depression:

https://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2021/07/22/jerusalem-faith-fury-herod-the-great.cnn

The series advise us that Herod’s ambition and envy ensured he had no peace in his public or private life. CNN describes him as “going mad” by the end of his lengthy reign.

After his death, Roman colonial ambition led to the invasion and military occupation of Israel (then called Judea) and to the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple that Herod himself had enhanced in the grand tradition of Roman edifices.

This true story is eerily similar to The  Game of Thrones tv series. Unfortunately, the viewpoint of traditional Jewish texts, Torah and Talmud, which tell the story of Jewish Kingship is missing from the CNN narrative.

Moses himself lays out the roadmap for Jewish governance and Kingship in the book of Deuteronomy.

If, after you have entered the land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the LORD your God. Be sure to put as King over yourself one of your people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your relative. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses since the LORD has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”

And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart goes astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.  (Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:14-17 *2)

This roadmap for a Jewish King is referenced in later historical descriptions of the history of the Jews as recorded in the later prophetic books, Samuel 1 and 2, Judges and Kings. In these canonical Jewish texts, transparency about situations, characters, motivations, and outcomes are impressive. Successes and failures are recorded along with the “sins” of both the mighty and the ordinary person. Additionally, the sins of the kings from Saul to Herod are amply documented.

The sins of the Jewish leadership of this period had started with the Hasmoneans, one hundred and fifty years earlier. The Hasmonean Dynasty (140 BCE to 37 BCE) was successful in ridding Israel of Greek hegemony. This early victory is what we celebrate annually on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The Hasmoneans were of the priestly caste and served as priests and High Priests. However, after their victory, they assumed the crown of Kingship and the office of High Priest. This went against the Mosaic law mentioned above. They also forcefully conquered neighbouring tribes and enforced their conversion to Judaism. This is also frowned upon by Moses’ injunction. King Herod, a Jewish member of one of these tribes that were converted by force, also coveted both crowns. He consulted neither holy books nor priestly advisors, yet he strove to be High Priest and King of Israel.

 

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s podcast episode #32, Kohen vs King: Two Models of Leadership *4, points out that it is inevitable that both Kohen/Priest and King will make mistakes or “will sin.” Moreover, Rabbi Meir points out that the Torah’s prescription for recognition and repentance for mistakes/sins is different for Priests and Kings. When in Leviticus the Torah refers to the High Priest, it says “if,” “If he sins,” but when speaking about Kings, it uses the word “asher-when,” “when he sins.” The Biblical text closely prescribes the conduct of the priests as they perform the rituals of worship, and so are very clear, but the narrator understands that the “errors” of rulers are inevitable. A ruler or King has to assess every situation as it crops up and make his own decisions.

The High Priest                                             The King     

 

Herod the Great

Herod the Great

The high priest.  

 

To help him with these decisions, he needs to:

“have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long amid Israel.” 3 Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:14-20

Herod’s reign was followed by Roman colonization and rule by Roman governors. His magnificent Temple – the Second Temple that he had greatly enhanced – was crushed and demolished, but Judaism, as we know it today, managed to survive this destruction over two thousand years ago by a hairs’ breadth.

A small group of scholars/rabbis fled Jerusalem surreptitiously and gained permission from the Roman Emperor to establish their community in Yavneh, a remote town in Galilee. This is where the Talmud – the conversations of the Rabbis on every subject mentioned in the Torah, what Jews call “the oral biblical law” – became formalized and written down over the next six centuries. The Torah and Talmud form the basis of Jewish communal life to our present day, both in Israel and the diaspora. Torah and Talmud continue to be studied daily by Jews of all ages, in yeshivas worldwide, synagogue classes, and even universities. These canonical texts have been the backbone of Jewish communal life all over the world in the diaspora and in Israel. It has been the guide for life for commoners and kings.

But it’s not enough to study these texts; execution is even more critical because Jewish history teaches us that acts of both kings and commoners have consequences.

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. CNN series on Jerusalem: City of Faith, 39 BC, The Rise and Fall of Herod the Great (www.cnn.com/2021/07/18/middleeast/jerusalem-original-series-faith-and-fury-timeline/index.html). This tv program is based on historic writings studied by modern-day scholars, like Sebag Montefiore, contemporary author of Jerusalem: The Biography and others.
  2. Sefaria, Deuteronomy Ch 17 – V. 14-20, a website presenting the Jewish biblical canon, including Torah and Talmud, along with many commentaries (www.sefaria.org/Deuteronomy.17.15?lang=bi&with=About&lang2=en).
  3. Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:18-20
  4. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s podcast, Bible 365, episode #32, Kohen (Priest) vs King: Two Models of Leadership https://bible365podcast.com/bible-365/kohen-vs-king-two-models-of-leadership/
  5. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, Learning and Leadership (Shoftim 57)
  6. Sefaria, Deuteronomy Ch 17, v 18

The Consolation of Media in Pandemic Times

Cinema

While reading the film reviews of the last several years, I keep asking myself why the most successful movies all seem to be fantasies of disaster or conquests by aliens either from Middle Earth or other galaxies? Here is one comment from the Washington Post regarding these movies: Go Ahead Take a Chance, See a weird Looking Movie LIke The Green Knight or Pig *1:

“There’s no denying that “The Green Knight” is strange. This is a movie full of naked giantesses and talking foxes, beautiful women who insist their heads have gone missing from their bodies, and, oh yes, a massive, axe-wielding combatant made of animated wood and vines. Those arresting images and enigmatic sequences are part of why “The Green Knight” is wonderful. It’s a film that will invite multiple, careful viewings.”

And then I recall the course I took with my Shiviti Yeshiva teacher, Yehudis Golshevsky *2, on “Aggadata” in the Talmud. Aggadata presents as a fantastical narrative, and the closest word in English would be “allegory.” Below is an example of the genre. *3

Struggling with these stories with my class was weird and wonderful. Although these tales are difficult to digest, they are not escapist entertainment. Countless Rabbis have written books of commentaries explaining what these tall tales have to teach us.

 

 

Talmud Readers by Adolf BehrmanTalmud Readers by Adolf Behrman

 

In the first session of his zoom course, The Really Big Questions About Judaism *4, Prof. Hazony laments that in our present intellectual climate, the Hebrew Bible is too often disparaged as antiquated and even perhaps geared to children and the unsophisticated. However, many ancient and contemporary scholars have found the Torah to be a marvellous source of ideas on all aspects of human striving.

Torah

Anyone who has ever attended a Jewish mainstream synagogue service knows that a significant portion of any service is the ceremony of taking the Torah out of the ark, unscrolling it, and chanting the Torah portion – the Parsha – for that week in the original Hebrew.

Over the course of the year, the complete Torah is recited every year. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks*5 discusses the value of reading and rereading Torah in his essay on Parsha Ki Tavo,

The great questions – “Who are we?” “Why are we here?” “what is our task” – are best answered by telling a story. This is fundamental to understanding why Torah is the kind of book it is; not a theological treatise, or a metaphysical system, but a series of interlinked stories extended over time, from Abraham and Sarah’s journey from Mesopotamia  to Moses’ and the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert. Judaism is less about ‘truth as system’ than about ‘truth as story.

We are fortunate in our time to have ready access to Torah texts, commentaries, brilliant teachers, as well as movies, television, and the internet all at the touch of the finger. How does one choose from this embarrassment of riches?

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear!” Find the teacher who speaks to you. Start with a favourite teacher of Torah wherever you are. I found mine when I visited Yeshivat Simhat Shlomo*6 in Nachlaot, Jerusalem and sat in on a class with Yehudis Golshevsky.

Every moment of your life is precious. and the only totally unrenewable resource is your time on this earth. Use it wisely, even when seeking entertainment.

 

 

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

*1  Washington Post: Opinion: Go Ahead Take a Chance, See a weird Looking Movie LIke The Green Knight or Pig 

*2 Shiviti Yeshiva: An international online intermediate and advanced Torah learning community for women-centred in Jerusalem, Israel

*3 The Legends of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah with the Commentary of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook  Introduction, P.9

*4 Prof. Yoram Hazony, The Really Big Questions About Judaism

*5  Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Ki Tavo, Lessons in leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, P. 276 -278,

*6 Yeshivat Simhat Shlomo, Torah from the Heart to the Heart

Zachor Al Tishkach: Remember, Don’t Forget

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Z’L) has pointed out that there is no word for “history” in the Hebrew language. The word that comes closest to the notion of history in Hebrew is the word “Zachor” – the injunction “to remember.”

The Torah has two commandments around the word “Zachor”. One is Zachor et Yom haShabbat, – remember the Sabbath Day and to keep it holy: The second one – Zachor et Amalek – Remember Amalek! Below is the translation of the Torah verses that recalls Amalek.

“You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear G-d. So it will be, when the Lord your G-d grants you respite from all your enemies around you in the land which the Lord, your G-d, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the Heavens. You shall not forget!” (Deut. 25:17-19).

These verses are chanted annually in the synagogue on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim. Below is what it sounds like.

 

Jewish memory of the last five thousand years is embedded in our texts and our holidays. The following documentaries and talks by current scholars about our recent world history brings the recent past vividly to mind. As you read this blog, I think you will come to realize why it is so important “not to forget what went before.”

 

STALIN’S RISE TO POWER

Stephen Kotkin has published two volumes on the life and times of Josef Stalin (1878-1953) based on his own research into recently released Soviet archives. I have enjoyed watching him interviewed by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute’s Uncommon Knowledge.

 

In the first volume, we learn that Stalin was not the product of an abusive home. He was educated in Catholic elementary and high schols because these were the best schools his parents could afford in his neighbourhood. His path was open to becoming a Catholic priest. But as a young man, he became enamoured with revolutionary Marxist ideology and made a career of being an anti-czarist activist. Before 1917, he was exiled and imprisoned by the Czarist police five times.

In 1917, the czarist regime was overthrown, and a provisional democratic government was installed. Stalin was close to the group around Lenin that overthrew the provisional government. In spring of 1922, after Lenin engineered a coup replacing all independent parties in the provisional government with the Communist Party, he appointed Stalin as his manager and right-hand man. Officially, Stalin became the Secretary-General of the Communist Party.

Six weeks later, Lenin had a stroke from which he never recovered. This left Stalin’s opening to maneuver himself into the role of a dictator by ruthlessly destroying anyone apposed to him or his ideas. Stalin was able to do this because he was a workaholic with great people skills and managerial prowess. With no one looking over his shoulder, he was ruthless and used “every underhanded method and then some” to justify his ends. He used manipulation, torture, and outright murder of any potential rivals to maintain his autocratic power.

In the name of his communist Marxist ideology, Stalin and his collaborators engineered collectivization of farmlands, the elimination of private property and personal freedom, which lead to poverty and death from starvation for tens of millions of people before World War ll. The name given to these events is the Holodomor.

It seems that although Stalin was idealistic, one of his ideas was that the end goal justifies any means, and secondly, he recognized absolutely no restraint in his quest for personal power.

 

THE RISE OF THE NAZIS

RISE OF THE NAZIS

This month, I also had the opportunity to study Hitler’s ascent and reign via the excellent documentary series Rise of the Nazis on PBS. So far, I have watched two episodes bringing us up to 1938.

In 1930, Germany was a liberal democracy. Just four years later, democracy is dead, and a single party, the Nazi party, rules the country. Hitler is the autocratic ruler and his collaborators, Ernst RöhmHermann Göring, and Heinrich Himmler, control all German national institutions:

  • The police, the army and the courts – Heinrich Himmler controls the police.
  • Herman Goring creates his own espionage cadre called the Gestapo.
  • Ernst Rohm is in charge of the SA, the Storm Troopers.

In the first episode, we meet the chief actors vying for parliamentary power in 1930. General Kurt von Schleicher, an ally of the right and himself a politician, fearing socialist and left-wing parties enlists Hitler thinking to take advantage of his popularity and his private militia power base, the SA (the Storm Troopers).

Hitler and his cronies first became known to the German public during what is now referred to as the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, which was an attempt at seizing the reigns of power via the armed violence of the Storm Troopers (SA). Goring and Himmler escape, and Hitler is tried and imprisoned.

  • Hitler was sentenced to prison for five years but served only nine months in the relative comfort of Landsberg castle. He used the time to dictate the first volume of Mein Kampf, his political autobiography, and a compendium of his multitudinous ideas.
  • Hitler’s ideas included inequality among races, nations, and individuals as part of an unchangeable natural order that exalted the “Aryan race” as humanity’s creative element. According to Hitler, the natural unit of humanity was the Volk (“the people”), of which the German people were the greatest. Moreover, he believed that the state existed to serve the Volk, i.e. Weimar Germany. In Hitler’s Germany, all morality and truth were judged by these criteria. (Source: Britannica)

Hans Litten is also highlighted in the series. Litten was a German lawyer from an established German family. His father, Fritz, was a distinguished jurist, dean of Königsberg’s law school who later became rector of that institution. His mother, Irmgard, was from an established Lutheran family in Swabia, the daughter of Albert Wüst, a professor at the University of Halle-Wittenberg.

The 1924 court case against Adolf Hitler and other events convinced Litten that Germany was approaching a hazardous period. His perception that right-wing radicals were literally getting away with murder – unfettered criminal violence in the pursuit of power – convinced him to become a lawyer.

In May 1931, Litten summoned Adolf Hitler to testify in the Tanzpalast Eden Trial, a court case involving two workers stabbed by four SA (Storm Troopers). He cross-examined Hitler for three hours, finding many points of contradiction and proving that Hitler had exhorted the SA to embark on a systematic campaign of violence against the Nazis’ enemies. This was crucial because Hitler was meanwhile trying to pose as a conventional politician to middle-class voters and to maintain that the Nazi Party was “strictly legal.”

Although Litten manages to expose Hitler in this trial, with some success, once Himmler and Goring were appointed to manage the Nazi forces, all German national institutions were corrupted. Litten himself is imprisoned in several Nazi concentration camps and continuously and mercilessly tortured. He is also declared a Jew and imprisoned in the Jewish prisoner wing. His father was a Jew who had  converted to Lutheranism.

The second episode exposes the competition between Goring and Himmler for Hitler’s approval after Hitler aquires his positon of Chancellor and sole governing ruler of Germany. Himmler expands his power by acquiring methodical control of all provincial police departments and announcing the creation of Dachay as a place to house/imprison enemies of the state, the thousands arrested by the SS immediately upon Hitler accessing autocratic powers. Goring advances his own power base by creating the Gestapo, a private espionage unit. Their own personal pursuit of power then lead them to collaborate with each other in order to denouncing Ernst Rohm and his Storm Troopers to Hitler. Ernst Rohm and his storm troopers are also imprisoned in concentration camps and systematically murdered in the Night of the Long Knives.

This episode ends with the little known story of Joseph Hartinger, Deputy State Prosecutor, who when called to examine the death of four prisoners at Dachau reported to have been shot while trying to escape, notices that all four are Jews and that they have all been shot in the same way at close range. He collects his evidence and writes his detailed report expecting those responsible to be condemned and brought to trial, but his superior refuses to sign off on it. Shocked, he decides to take it further up the chain of command on his wn intitiative, but Himmler is warned, and the report arrives at the highest court and gets locked away in a safe. We know this because the report was discovered by the American armies and was used as evidence at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, which began November 20, 1945.

These Nazi leaders were personally ambitious, cruel and murderous. They managed to seduce and to intimidate much of the German populace with their racial theories, blaming all of Germany’s ills on Jews, communists, socialists, capitalists, and anyone else who was not a “pure German and Nazi sympathizer.”

 

History-Zachor Al Tishkach

CHINA UNDERCOVER

In another PBS documentary, China Undercover, FRONTLINE investigates China’s oppression of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. The documentary exposes China’s alarming use and testing of surveillance technology.

The regime’s growing capacity to survey an entire population, using surveillance technology and concentration type camps visible via satellite to punish and imprison should cause global alarm. Cameras are placed everywhere and allow the regime to keep a close eye on all its citizens, even identifying them by analyzing facial structure. The country’s faithful soldiers systematically download peoples’ phones and label their houses with barcodes. They enlist Chinese families to invade the homes of Uyghur families and “becoming a part of uyghur families” on holidays, eliminating any possibiliity of privacy or resistance.

This reality seems to be even worse than the dystopia depicted in George Orwell’s classic novel 1984.

Why Is the Injunction to Remember – Zachor – So Important? 

Why is it so important to understand the history of Hitler, Stalin, and the current landscape? It shows us what can happen when individuals or institutions, unmoored from any moral compunctions, and often in the name of “social justice,” have the hubris to declare themselves keepers of the flame, and to claim supreme governing authority.

The Torah reminds us to work to eliminate these kinds of rulers, even after we ourselves are prospering, not to wreak vengeance but to create a safer world for all of us, one that is committed to the kind of justice that protects the weakest among us everywhere. Whenever we have the opportunity to review these events, we all become witnesses.

 

 

Golda’s Balcony: The Film, 2019

“I begin with the redemption of the human race, and I end up in the munitions business… We intend to live. Our neighbours intend us to die.” Quotes from Golda’s Balcony

Yesterday, LAJ film festival screened, on line, Golda’s Balcony, the one-woman play, which has now become a film. There was also a 90-minute interview by Hilary Helstein with Tovah Feldshuh, the actress who plays Golda.

The play is a tour-de-force exposing Golda Meir’s character as a mother, a wife, and a passionate Zionist, who also happened to be the Prime Minister of Israel during the devastating Yom Kippur war (1973). The crux of the play is the Yom Kippur War and the choices that Golda herself, had to make.

The play exposes the travails of leadership and brings history to life. Will she or won’t she use the secret weapon? What goes through her mind as she faces these agonizing moments? In the interview, Tovah shares her personal history, research, and active participation in the creation of this work of art – the tweaking of the play and the development of the character. Tovah brings it off brilliantly.

This film deserves all of the many awards it has recently garnered. It shares history, not from a linear and intellectual standpoint but as if from the visceral connection of personal memory – the first person singular – memory itself.

Although the film referred to events up to Golda’ Meir’s death in 1973, it is sadly relevant today as it reveals both the birth of the state of Israel and the constant agonizing struggle for its survival, which continues to the present day.

Check out Tovah’s website for purchases, such as a study guide to Golda’s balcony or a DVD The Journey to Golda’s Balcony.