Richer than Donald Trump

Surely, there are benefits to a Trump presidency for any conservative. That regulations have been reduced, taxes cut, and a Conservative justice installed to the Supreme Court are all boons to the United States. However, many of us have always seen the degradation of character and, thereby, of reasoned political discourse on a national scale, as the primary cost of Mr. Trump’s presidency. This is a cost we continue to pay in fresh, unpredicted forms on a near-daily basis.

Who, after all, could have predicted that in 2018 Conservatives would be bowing to money?

It’s not that they are directly bribed, exactly. Rather, many have come to value a certain businessman over those who make meaningful sacrifices for the country. This is not even a dichotomy between wealth and principle. It is, in fact, merely an abandonment of a principled definition of wealth. There are many ways to measure how rich a man is. Many conservatives have now settled for the lowest.

Consider: President Trump has billion(s) of dollars, but what has he ever given to our society?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a progressive. I don’t despise the rich. I appreciate a businessman, a capitalist even, who invests in projects and provides goods, services, and jobs to the population. When the whale’s money goes into the bank or the stock market, this is to the benefit of thousands and millions of small fish, who can then take loans and make their smaller trades. In all of this, Mr. Trump has undoubtedly participated.

However, it is surely unfair to compare the largely self-interested machinations of the invisible hands to the sacrifices of time, autonomy, health, and sometimes life that the immigrants in our armed forces make for the American way of life.

Strangely, if one were to look not at the ledger of income or assets, but, as we are encouraged by Judaism, at what one has given away, those who should punch at a level far lower than Donald Trump have shown themselves to be far wealthier.

3% of all US veterans are foreign-born. Many Haitians and Africans, those immigrants the President doesn’t want, serve as firefighters and soldiers, policemen and airmen. They put themselves in physical danger and give years of their lives to the public service; they do not, in return, get to eat American fast food or to watch all the channels they do in the white house. They do not claim to have bone spurs. They do not discourse upon their own personal Iraqs, Afghanistans, or apartment fires.

In return, many soi-disant conservatives respect men such as Sheriff Clarke, who cover themselves in hardware for cable television, over the experience of actual Americans who happen to be African immigrants who really serve in the military.

What is happening to us? Why are believable expressions of sacrificial devotion lower in our eyes than the words of those who constantly claim them for political points?

It seems that under the Party’s new reorganization of priorities, some have decided the forms of wealth that matter are those light up the sky of even the dim inner world of the classroom bully in their passing. Mr. Trump is brilliant because he is wealthy, and he is wealthy because he, like, has a lot of money. Money is intellect is power is worth.

Such is the philosophy of people who, while constantly venerating military service, turn from the sacrifices of their fellows to judge all immigrants the way the King commands.

It is no escape, either, to claim that one respects no-one, holds no men in high regard, and is simply acting pragmatically on economic policy. For people who respect no one, those who resort to this retreat into cynicism always seem to be defending the President. They wield their lack of admiration for people who deserve it without the knowledge that it is a double-edged sword (who can respect a man who respects no men?). Finally, they continue to attribute meaningful distinctions to the President that Mr. Trump almost never makes himself, speaking as he does on immigrants as much as he is about the countries from which they happen to hail.

Mr. Trump builds hotels on multiple continents. Who, however, decided this is true wealth? It is, perhaps, purchasing power. In contrast, the Mishna says he is wealthy who is satisfied with his portion. A different chapter solemnly reminds us that more possessions lead to more worries. Rabbeinu Bahya writes on the ten ways in which one who trusts G-d is better-off than an alchemist who can transform dross into gold. Man’s power is exhausted trying to defend his wealth from thieves, and the more money he has, the more his exhaustion grows.

If we are to respect a man for his wealth, why must we conflate it with the material evaluation of his earnings or possessions?

Few speak, in the political context, of the ways in which wealth is a good only in combination with the intelligence to dispose of it wisely and the character to not be tempted by those purchases or investments that would turn those riches into a great burden. Few speak, in politics, of the way mismanaged or dishonest wealth can lead to one’s destruction.

Too few speak about the worth of an immigrant’s life given for this country.

Too few weigh it against all the gilded walls of the Mar-a-Lago and ask themselves whom they respect, or why.

There Is Only One Side

It is hard to figure out where the truth lies in political controversies, at least if the truth is one’s goal. As Jews, we look to the Torah for guidance, but the Torah is famously complex and multi-faceted, allowing for many perspectives and opinions to partially participate in the truth.

The word “partially” is important, there. If any political or worldly philosophy was to completely agree with the Torah, it simply would be Torah, and of course, few political movements advocate bringing about a perfect world through not wearing wool and linen together or, for that matter, loving the King of Kings. All philosophies conceived by man, political or otherwise, are as imperfect and limited as man himself, whereas Torah simply is the infinite and perfect divine intellect.

While the knowledge that all politics is human and imperfect may not directly help us choose whether to vote Democrat or Republican (and, as the Rebbe Rayatz points out, the good in each side has its source in Torah), it does help us understand a new and popular idea called “There Is Only One Side.”

“There is only one side,” we are told with a straight face, “in the fight against injustice/fascists/leftists/Nazis/Trump/SJWs/etc.” This violates not only centuries of Jewish taste (“Every stick has two ends” is a Yiddish saying for a reason) and millennia of Jewish scholarship (“Oh,” cries Shammai, “there’s only one side! What a fool I’ve been!”), but also one of the deep, sacred truths of Judaism. “There’s only one side” is a reserved parking space, and it’s not reserved for us.

Why is a Nazi evil?

Let me ask a different question. Why is Amalek evil? Perhaps the Torah gives some reasons. But do those reasons apply to their women and children? The whole nation was our enemy and deserved to be wiped out. Is this based on some rational calculus? What rationale is there for killing children?

No, that’s not how it works. They had to be destroyed because G-d their creator commanded it. Amalek is “evil” because the Torah says so; in fact, that’s all that’s meant in this case by the word “evil”; no other definition of the term could sentence the entire tribe to death.

This makes me uncomfortable. Does this make you uncomfortable? Does it challenge your sense of Justice?

Good. Because declaring an entire tribe evil at essence as an unquestionable absolute is a grave moral undertaking even when the command comes from G-d Himself.

So why is a Nazi evil? Why is [insert group] evil?

Some seem to think a Nazi is evil because they practice Nazism, and Nazism is evil because Nazis practice it. They gesture toward historical atrocities without naming them and allow those stories to simplify and foreshorten and shrink into a single point. They become angry that they should even have to answer the question. No explanations are needed. Nazis are just evil because they are, like Amalek. There is, we are assured, only one side – with the evil, or against it.

But of course, there is no divine authority that says anyone who throws a Nazis salute is simply pure evil. Divine authority says more that murder of innocents is evil, that theft is evil, that ruling without courts or law is evil, that chaos and barbarism is wrong. We are to love our fellow as ourselves and know that we will one day have to explain our actions before our Creator. We are to pursue truth, justice, and peace. We are to be magnanimous toward defeated enemies, we are to be humble before G-d, we are to view man as created in the image of G-d. All of this, and much more makes the Nazis evil.

But if there are reasons the Nazis are evil, we now have three problems.

The first is that the emotional weight of the story of their evil seems much more important and powerful to us than any pathetic words about right and wrong. This indicates that we have contemplated the story of the Nazis and their victims, but not the story of G-d, righteousness, and reason, which, if told correctly, should lend emotional ballast to good and evil.

The second problem is that if Nazis are evil for a reason, people can be proportionately or relatively evil in comparison for participating in the same crimes and horrors. This necessarily entails that rather than being purely wicked through-and-through as a group, individual Nazis are really only evil inasmuch as they are responsible for the reasons Nazis are evil. (Of course, being part of the group is itself participation in the Nazi evil to some extent; morality is complicated.)

The third problem is that the path to the Manichaean contrast of good vs. evil is now much more difficult. If Nazis aren’t evil by definition but only evil by performing, participating in, and representing evil, then anti-Nazism is not good by definition but only good by performing, participating in, and representing countervailing goods. “Good Guys vs. Bad Guys” is an appropriate and perhaps necessary narrative assessment to make, but of course cannot be the foundation of determining who the good guys and bad guys actually are, or, even more maturely, to what extent they are actually good or bad.

These aren’t really problems for me. I’m a Jew, and so, for me, there is only one side – the Torah. It is the only thing in this world that is infinitely true without context or qualification. I think this makes sense; the Torah does come from G-d, after all.

But to apply the same logic to your own political position – what’s your excuse?

A Framework For Torah Politics

One of the tensions Chassidus is most concerned with is between investiture and transcendence. G-d has made the world in such a way that both are necessary but are opposing forces. Investiture is necessary if one wishes to truly change something — the famous example is that the brilliant teacher cannot give the student his own knowledge as-is but must, if the student is to truly learn, convey the lesson at the student’s level of understanding. Transcendence, however, is necessary to truly change something, for to change is to become something new, not just to reshuffle what one is. A teacher who only invests himself at the level of the students’ understanding can give them nothing they don’t already have; a teacher who only transcends them can give them everything but they will understand nothing. It seems that instead some sort of synthesis is needed.

If we assume (and it seems a safe assumption) the Torah is meant to teach the world G-dly wisdom, we would need some synthesis in our understanding of it as well. Indeed, even a superficial analysis, we see that there are varying levels of investiture and transcendence — a written law and an oral law; four books of the Torah vs. Deuteronomy, the speech of Moses; Torah in the holy tongue and Torah in translation. Nevertheless, these syntheses provide no obvious approach to the relationship of Torah to worldly ethics and (less ethical, and more worldly) politics. This leads to a tendency for investiture and transcendence to separate out, like oil and water. What is required then, for Torah to “teach” politics, is a framework for their synthesis.

Without such a framework, we see the extremes in the usual attempts to apply Torah to a political context. On the investiture side, you have those who believe the Torah speaks directly to our political choices in the real world. Verses are selected (more on the true nature of this selection later) in support of a candidate or ideology. Mrs. Clinton is compared to G-d, the Zohar is said to have predicted a Trump victory. People point to this law or that Midrash to demonstrate the Torah’s support of progressivism or conservatism, limited government or entitlements, traditional sexual values or transgenderism. The obvious problem with this is that the truth of G-d is co-opted for fights that are all too human. This, in turn, incentivizes new interpretation of the Torah, trying to read it in a way that supports our pre-existing biases.

On the transcendence side, however, one sees a desire to remove Torah from any connection to worldly concerns at all. The Torah says only what it does, they wish to say, and any resemblance to secular matters is purely coincidental. This leaves a Jewish politician, say, free to support whatever position they like as long as it is not in clear violation of the law. However, this attempt to leave Torah uncorrupted also leaves it impotent, having nothing to say on matters of great importance to the average man seeking to do what is right. Further, it corrupts the Torah in every sense other than the legal one. That the book is the truth rather than a mere guide for action falls by the wayside, at least as far as truth human beings can appreciate or act on. Ultimately, it places a strict barrier between the human mind and the book and forbids its traversal — the mind is too universal and objective and would only apply the Torah to places, as a holy book, it has no business going.

So, everyone who wishes the Torah to be a holy and true book of practical moral teaching must find some kind of synthesis. Just such an approach was put forth by the Rebbe Rayatz, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch, sixth Rebbe of Chabad. The Rebbe Rayatz was the leader of Lubavitcher Chassidim in Russia under Stalin and was no stranger to political movements and their Jewish followers. His famous incarceration was the work of the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish communists later largely purged by the dictator.

On one of his journeys, the Rebbe Rayatz encountered a group of people arguing over which political system was supported by Torah, and each one brought proof that his position was favored by Torah. They asked the Rebbe his opinion. He told them that Torah, being the ultimate good and truth, contains and is the source of what is good in all the political systems.

This is not so much a straightforward synthesis as a redefinition of terms; we are not saying Torah is good so much as redefining good and truth to mean what Torah says. This is not arbitrary. If the Torah is G-d’s wisdom, it precedes the world and defines the world; it makes sense that “good” is defined by Torah rather than vice-versa. Therefore, what the Rebbe Rayatz has technically done is applied an even higher transcendence than what was previously considered. Not only is Torah too good for the world, but goodness itself is too good for the world. The entire process of seeking a “true” or “good” course of action is, in the Rebbe’s view, non-secular, since Torah itself is the G-dly Torah.

However, this further form of transcendence is, in fact, more permitting of investiture than it might appear. For if the Torah is merely a document existing beyond worldly concerns it is quarantined from practical application. But if Torah is truth itself, then any true or good aspect of any non-Torah worldview, no matter how base, is Torah — the way in which the thing is openly connected to the truth. Conversely, this does not bring the Torah down to the level of manipulation for political ends, because the only true end is the Torah itself.

More simply — the Rebbe acknowledges that every politics has some truth to it, but also that anything which is not Torah itself can never be the whole truth. The Torah is both invested and transcended, the truth of every thing but fully present in nothing except itself.

This synthesis allows us to begin to approach matters of Torah and politics without having to worry about whether the Torah is sidelined or corrupted. Take, say, universal healthcare. Sources can be brought from either side of the matter. The Talmud recognizes a need to heal the sick and the cost of care on individuals and communities. But what cannot be said is that there is no Torah opinion on the matter — since the very notion that anything about a man-made healthcare system can be good or true is predicated on reflecting Torah. On the other hand, we also cannot say that any man-made system is the Torah or could shift the Truth an inch, since if we know Him, we would be Him, and no approach to worldly affairs until Moshiach’s coming can be Truth.

We can plot a course of action that does not violate the Torah. We can even devote ourselves to fulfilling it in thought, speech, and action. But to build any sort of secular system is by definition to build something outside of Torah. It is only by bringing to bear G-d’s will upon our actions (rather than by trying to bridge intellectual systemic gaps) that we can bring true peace between the truth of G-d and the truth of the world. This is what is meant by Moshiach — to find the true part of every thing, and return is to the Truth that’s only one.

Why Antisemitism Is A Historical Constant

All that varies in Jew hatred, over continents and millennia, is in the details. Every group has their own claim. The Jews killed Jesus (all of us; I was there!), the Jews did not accept Mohammed, the Jews drink the blood of small children. Jews have horns, their men menstruate part of the year. Jews are pathetic parasitic cockroaches. Jews rule the global order. They’re communists! They’re capitalists! They’re Zionists!

As a somewhat religious fellow, my question on all these persistent, bizarre, and contradictory claims is not just “Why?” but “Why, G-d?” It is clearly part of our mission to be distrusted and oppressed; we tell prospective converts that they join their fate with that of a beleaguered people. Why is this the way it must be, in a world where G-d expects the Jew to accomplish things?

Anyone familiar with the sources realizes prophecy and sagacity are two different qualities, though both prophet and sage receive word from G-d in some way. However, one of Judaism’s great sages must, in our case, be charged with uncanny prescience. Rashi, most famous of all Torah commentators, answers our question in his first words on Genesis.

That the explanation is on the words “In the beginning” indicates just how deep the roots of antisemitism might go. Rashi asks: The Torah ought not (as the book of teachings for the Jewish people) have begun with the world’s creation (which in many ways is none of our business) but with G-d’s first commandment to the Jews, recorded later in the book of Exodus. Rashi answers: The book of Genesis exists to answer the future claims of the non-Jew, who will come and say, “You are robbers; the land [of Israel] belongs to us!” The Jew can respond, “G-d created the world and gives it to whom He will; He willfully gave it to the Seven Nations and willfully took it from them and gave it to us.”

Here is an answer, on a simple level, to those who wish to take the land from the Jewish people, to those who call us thieves, oppressors, insufficiently progressive, etc. It is not, however, an explanation for all antisemitism in history. In fact, it has only sounded relevant since 1948 for the first time in almost two thousand years.

But that is not all that’s contained in Rashi’s words, which demand deeper consideration. After all, does Rashi truly mean to tell us that an entire book was added to the beginning of the Torah, God’s books, just to answer some mistaken future claims? This seems to lend their accusations of theft far more credence than they deserve

Really, the case Rashi raises is not a particular accusation of land theft but rather the eternal claim of the world against the Jew. “You come from the desert, inspired, claiming to have met the Creator and therefore transcended the bounds of this reality. It is surely a spiritual people whose entire nation is founded on the deliverance of, and covenant with, G-d. Surely any claim to a physical land is, on your part, out of place, a ‘theft’ from those who do not claim to have spoken with God.” In other words, the Jew is alien, not because of custom, appearance, or even religious practice (we have “controlled” for these and were still hated) but because their story sets them apart. To be a Jew who does nothing is, by a simple act of history, to stake a claim. And the claim of the Jew (not the claim the Jew makes, it must be reemphasized, but the claim made by history (and G-d) through the Jew) is that there exists a reality before whom the world is nothing. To put it in vulgar modern terms, antisemitism is in some sense the world rejecting a question on its stake to ultimate reality, like a body rejecting an organ transplant.

This, it should be noted, does not excuse the antisemite’s actions in the slightest; no one is compelled to be the messenger for this rejection. However, this does explain why antisemitism refuses to die, as an impulse — because the Jews refuse to die, and with the world as it is now, before any sort of radical messianic transformation, there is a fundamental resentment toward the people whose story negates the world. And since the world includes all man-made ideologies and all of man’s animal impulses, it is never very hard to find an excuse for Jew hatred.

What, according to Rashi, is the Jewish response to this resentment? “G-d is the creator the world and gives it to whom He wills.” Even though a G-dly people may seem to contradict the world, it is, on the contrary, G-d’s will that they enter it, settle a land, and repair the world from within. It is our whole aim to know, and then to teach, that though we may have different stories, we and the non-Jew are made by the same Creator and the “secular” world is as G-dly as the event at Sinai, if not more so. The “solution” to antisemitism can only be found in dissolving the seeming difference between the physical and the spiritual, the mundane and the holy.

The world is an estranged child who has forgotten her roots in G-d, and the Jews are here to guide her back. She must be taught that in her very weakness, in her acknowledgment that she is not just a mother but a child, an offspring of a higher reality, she discovers not death and limitation but true eternal life in service of the One G-d. Just like the Jews.

Modernity As A Delaying Tactic

The moral realm can be defined as that area where we determine not only what is but what human action ought to be. It is also notable for being perhaps the only part of human life in which we are able to weigh the options and use our free will to make a decision. Aesthetics are more connected to the subconscious; our choice of mate or food or residence could come from predetermined nature, but when we are faced with doing the right thing we have the opportunity to step away from all “inputs,”  from all immediate causes, and weigh the matter within ourselves. That there is, at that moment, a correct decision and an incorrect one, and that we are held responsible for the one we choose, and that the choice is truly a free one uncaused by anything other than our own souls, are all fundamental to the notion of divine reward and punishment so central to religion.

However, as in so many other areas, clarity is much harder to find in our times. The very proposition that there is a “correct” decision is of course famously under assault from “moral relativism,” whatever that is; our responsibility in the matter is downplayed by most social theories; those, in turn, are based on a materialist understanding of human beings which does not allow for an “uncaused decision” in what is a more-or-less deterministic universe.

These views on the nature of man and the world that stand against the traditional understanding of morality are made more mysterious by the fact that they do not truly exist. Moral relativism is the somewhat murky general stance that in any question of right or wrong everything is equal from different perspectives. It is unclear whether anyone has actually ever held moral relativism as an actual position, as it seems we’d be hard-pressed to find a person who never judges anyone morally, or who is always willing to see the position of others as correct from a different point of view. Similarly, the social theories that blame, say, the choices of the young latino who robs a convenience store on his position in society, government policies, the hatred of others toward him, etc. seem less inclined to extend the same social theories to the young white racist who hates Latinos, and vice versa; taken to its (truly, at this point, farcical) extreme, there are few who’d say Joseph Stalin is as good a person as, say, Vanna White because both merely played the fated part their biology and upbringing laid out for them. And if no one is excusing Stalin on social grounds, neither are they excusing him on biological ones, despite the fact that his neurons obey the same unchanging and inexorable laws of nature that Vanna’s do and it would be easy to argue he was fulfilling more evolutionary imperatives by opening gulags than she is by revealing game show solutions.

Yet somehow, despite these strange internal contradictions and a seeming desire across the board to at least pay lip service to the old morality, somehow it always comes up from some angle that the action in question is not the fault of the individual. There’s always someone who says, “You know, I’m all for being moral, but if you had been alive during the time of slavery, you probably would have been for it!” I think that the real thrust of the argument is sometimes lost in the fact that it’s true; I agree at once that this point is true whereas its application is false. If we would have been slaveholders in antebellum Georgia, the question then becomes, “So what does it mean to be personally moral within you time?” After all, we will all be sitting under our vineyards one day after the coming of the messiah and telling each other we, too, would have sinned if only we had lived in the dark times when G-d’s presence did not shine in all of reality, and then, too, what we would mean is somehow that there is no morality rather than morality is complicated and must be discussed in context.

It is hard to believe that such questions are merely intended to further moral investigation when the follow-up is almost always some matter of practical concern. It is obvious to many of us who read literature or study history or even mull over in the dark the mysteries of our own fate that the moral question is the question of human existence, and so it is equally obvious when no one around us cares about it. How could it be that something so central could be so undiscussed?

I blame the near-infinite human capacity for distraction.

You see, the enlightenment (on whose dregs and fumes our society still runs) was a great turning, a decision to put aside all of what is to focus on how best to conquer it. This dogmatic narrowing of focus is what gave us that very mechanistic view of the universe codified by Isaac Newton and applied with astonishing success in technology to master nature; it is what diverted public attention away from the mystery of their own moral souls to questions of governance and politics, which can be used to change the circumstances of society and take certain ethical questions off the table.

And this great turning, in whose wake we are still all caught up, is in decay. When it was young and vigorous and had its bright eyes set firmly on mastery over nature, Hume was able to say clearly that one cannot derive an ought from an is; Newton and Descartes were aware that their mechanistic focus was merely the lowest function of a universe full of G-d and purpose and so were content to deal purely with mechanisms. But now, in 2017, we are far beyond the point when the revolution knew what it wanted and well into the part where chaos descends on the now-godless masses.

This is why the people we know propose more and more medical, political, or scientific solutions to tough moral questions or the time. The “solution” for criminality (and most other things wrong with people) is therapy, which we are meant to pretend is purely a medical solution to mental health problems and not an attempt to apply a moral theory (that always remains undiscussed) to the psyche of the patient. Which therapy is it that does not assign to certain moral actions a certain level of responsibility, a causative explanation, and a course of action one ought to follow? The “solution” to poverty is redistribution or central planning of some sort, which we are meant to pretend is purely an economic solution to material resentments and not an attempt to apply a moral theory (that usually remains undiscussed) to large swathes of citizens. Which form of welfare or entitlement does not directly incentivize certain behavior, altering the sort of moral choices one is open to making? The “solution” to boredom and ennui is the continuous march of technology and the new mission to save mother earth, which we are meant to pretend is obviously the reason we are here and not an attempt to apply a moral theory (which is almost never discussed) to the very definition of humanity. Which TED talk on imagination, or progress, or the cause de jour does not attempt to tell us what we ought to do without asking whether it’s right?

Just as the march of science has hit a wall with the problem of consciousness because consciousness was never a problem it was meant to solve in the first place, so, too, has the march of practical solutions and mastery of human nature come to its last breaths.

We have been working on an assumption that we are here to control nature, and many of us find that the more we control her to the detriment of other pursuits the more empty and adrift and purposeless we feel. But if the true reason we are here is for us to come to grips with our souls and our terrifying ability to choose right and wrong, to devote ourselves selflessly to each other and to God, and to find and participate in the truth, most of the solutions of modernity have simply been a distraction and a delaying tactic.

Understanding “The Pianist” & Jewish Opinion on Trump

If you’re Jewish and confused by other Jews’ response to Trump, whether the support he has from the religious and particularly the religious Israeli Jews or the powerful, loud opposition he faced from the non-religious American Jewish community, it will pay to remember The Pianist.

The story: A talented Jewish pianist from Warsaw is saved from certain death by his beautiful performance of Chopin. The Nazi officer who discovers him does not have the heart to destroy the artist and works to rescue him from the destruction of the holocaust.

The question is why. What happened in the mind and heart of an officer otherwise more-or-less committed to the Nazi endeavor that allowed him to make an exception for the pianist? The question is not so much on the true story behind the novel; in the real world it is always dangerous to assume the motions of the heart follow the dictates of logic; the pianist was saved because Hosenfeld the German officer was a Catholic, or because he was a schoolteacher, or because he felt guilt for the occupied Polish. It doesn’t matter; the question is how we read that unbearable moment in the shelled-out building when Szpilman is revealed to be an artist. If we want to understand what happened in those precious seconds of mortal and moral peril, what story could we tell?

The answers to this question, it must be pointed out, are the very answers that frame the Jewish response to the holocaust and perforce the Jewish response to all new external threats. To understand why a Nazi might not have killed a Jew is to understand why the Nazis killed so many Jews and how we might prevent any similar thing from occurring in the future.

 

So, here’s one answer:

The Nazi doesn’t kill the pianist because in that moment he realizes that Nazism is a lie, or at least a lie relative to the deep truth of shared humanity. The Jew and the German both participate in a shared appreciation of capital-A Art, highest of human endeavors, a mating of beauty and truth that demolished all the contrived boundaries that separate us. Hitler may say that a Jew is not a person, but in that sublime moment when a Jew’s will and a Jew’s hands transform wood and wire into undying eternity, even the Nazis do not believe him. Hitler forgot that we are all human, that we are united by far more than divides us. His and the Germans’ fear of the “other” and desire for power drove out the innate love of man that otherwise beats in every human breast.

The Nazis’ defeat, the unmaking of their plan, though obviously requiring military force in the short-term, comes ultimately and permanently from our refusal to separate from the “other,” from our acknowledgement of our shared humanity, from art, beauty, and love.

If Hosenfeld’s actions are to effect us, they must not be allowed to translate as a mere personal tolerance or forbearance. We must see them as a victory of our best self, the self we all share, over the fractious tendencies of tribalism and nationalism that threaten to swallow the subterranean truth that is human unity. It cannot be, “A certain nazi found it within his heart to save a Jew.” It must be, “We all find it in our own hearts to save one another, deep down in the place that makes us people.” This is how we learn.

 

Here’s another answer:

The Nazi doesn’t kill the Jew because, at the moment Szpilman plays the piano, he is a perfect German. Indeed, Nazism at its root is not proven a lie by the incident but rather proven true. Given enough training in culture and artistic talent, the Jewish untermensch can approach being human. The Nazis may have believed in a brutish philosophy but the majority of them were, at the end of the day, standard bearers of Western Civilization in general and German culture in particular, lovers of Wagner, Mozart, and Goethe, who saw the arts as yet another area where the Aryans were superior. And if a dirty Jew should succeed at the highest level of artistry, if he could demonstrate that he, too, was German, he may not deserve death. Not that this was of any benefit whatsoever to the millions who were killed, children and all. No, the opportunity to prove the quality of Jewish genetics was not extended to them; they were still Jews, after all. The progress of humanism, the arts, and love of all men was a casualty of the war; Chopin was just another heuristic for determining whether a Jew was fit or deserved the gas chamber; the survival of the pianist is in consonance with the death of six million Jews, most of whom could not find middle C.

Thus, the unmaking of the Nazis’ plan can come only through the application of force or authority, whether through military opposition to fascism or appeals to moral or religious principles to curb the will to power of the murderous art lovers. They must be taught, as Merlyn tries to impart to Arthur, that might does not make right. When art is a cudgel rather than the key to enlightened universalism, when Beethoven does not necessitate the brotherhood of man, all that’s left is morality and the Sherman tank enforcing it.

Hosenfeld’s actions are thus extraordinarily virtuous but do not directly present a lesson for us to learn; the good deed of one Nazi, if it ought to be seen in a broader context at all, is the exception that proves the rule of an evil in man’s soul that no amount of art or culture can fix. There may be no solution to the problem of tribalism, except education to choose the right over the easy and using all the tools of politics and intellect to systemically prevent the seizure of power by the power-hungry and imperious. To stop evil, those who are not evil must be confident and strong and must spread their influence as far as possible; it is only the binding principles of good and right that can truly civilize, if anything can.

 

The first of these answers was largely adopted by American Jews, whereas Israelis and the religious Jews found the latter narrative more compelling. Naturally, the average American Jew sees the crimes of the Nazis as a violation of universal humanity, as a perversion of the good man would do unto his fellow if society only allowed it. Many religious Jews, on the other hand, feel the Nazis’ crimes are evil like those of any murderer or tyrant, but special insomuch as they signal the failure of enlightened universal humanism buttressed by culture and the arts to withstand hijacking by the same old and brutal forces that once hijacked religion, monarchy, and everything else.

It is thus no surprise that, thinking narratively, the average American Jew sees an orange barbarian whose signature trick more than any President since the war is “othering” vast swathes of people, who expresses no overt devotion to the project of enlightened humanism, the arts, or erasing the boundaries society places between men, and that Jew concludes that Hitler or something like him has come once more.

On the other hand, many a religious Jew sees a barbarian with few morals, a narcissist who is successful in business but lives a life of debauched excess, and that Jew says that as the law governs and the society believes in a traditional rules-based morality, there is no reason to suspect a Hitler will be elected to the White House in January, nor could he carry out Hitlerian plans if he wanted to.

The average American Jew is especially despondent, because the project of universal human brotherhood based on what we all have in common has been meeting stiff resistance of late and (for various reasons not worth arguing here) President Obama was seen as the new hope and is now seen as the last hope with the electorate’s reversal.

But many religious Jews and Israelis are cautiously optimistic. Even if the man is G-dless and immoral, his total destruction of the status quo may be an opportunity to fix the long-eroding roles of the rule or law and traditional morality in our society, especially as they relate to the death struggle of Israel (and now, large portions of Europe) with totalitarian Islamism, a system which gives room to many of the worst domineering impulses of the human spirit. They feel this is a threat that can only be beaten back with military power and allies willing to accept that their way is, at the very least, the far lesser of the two evils. In short, they seek leadership willing to say that the enemy is evil and that we would be evil not to name them so, a president willing to use war correctly rather than write it off as a violation of the deepest ideals of humanity, a bit of the old-time “us and them.” And they think Trump may be the answer.

 

In the end, I think the divide in the Jewish community over President-elect Trump is far less an issue of ignorance, “fake news,” or deception than a pure “fact-based” analysis might let on. It’s instead a fundamental divergence in worldview that traces back to at least World War II, when our community chose two different paths in trying to ensure that calamity would never again strike our people or the world.

In Defense Of Taking Offense

It stands to reason that free speech laws protect especially speech disliked by those in power. Otherwise, there would be no need for a law. However, free speech on its own is only a negative principle, and governmental respect of rights has never and will never be enough to sustain a civilized society.

What do I mean when I say that free speech is a negative principle? The First Amendment does not tell us what we should say or what speech means; it simply says that whatever it is, the government ought not to get involved. It is concerned with rights rather than what it right. Take, for example, flag burning. Flag burning is a form of expression that I think should be counted under the First Amendment and protected in this country. After all, is speech to be free only if it is patriotic? Where is that constitutional caveat? No, those who protest this country should have the right to speak their minds. Indeed, they have the exact same right to speak as one who praises America. Neo-nazis have the same rights as peace protestors who can speak as freely as pulpit clergy who in turn have as much of a voice as Black Lives Matter. This is what makes America unique – we say that the government has no power over the speech of any of these individuals.

However, this legal principle has led to a modern turn on the political right, in which all speech is viewed as equally valid and anyone who is offended by, say, a neo-nazi sending them pictures of gas chambers somehow has a weak character and is viewed as too childish and soft to deal with American freedoms; they must need their safe space. In other words, a legal negative principle (that the right to free speech shall not be infringed) has come to mean that all speech is beyond moral castigation.

This happened the same way everything in 2016 has happened: Too many years of unbearable progressive puritanism and doublespeak has fueled a partisan hatred of the left; anything that even smells like Barack Obama or his administration is indelibly tainted and must be purged from the conservative ranks. Therefore, since Social Justice Warriors say that praising America is an act of violence and asking someone to play golf is a microaggression, all speech must be equally morally valid. If that logic sounds absurd, it’s because it is. If there is one lesson I have learned from the kulturkampf of this year and this election cycle, it is that two wrongs do not make a right.

The left’s delusion does not mean that gas chambers are a joke, or that any jerk off the street deserves to say his piece in one’s home or business. More important: If someone at my dinner table cries “To the gas chamber with you,” it is not a moral weakness to kick him out of my house. On the contrary, it is moral strength; it is hating evil. But in 2016, hating evil is equivalent to needing a “safe space” free from being offended. Call it whatever you like; I’m willing to bet you would not allow just anyone to come onto your private property, to your business, or even up to you in the street and speak their mind with impunity. If, for example, you are walking with your mother down a public road and someone starts hurling verbal abuse at her and you do not get offended, you are the worst sort of cretin. True, no number of words will twist your ankle, but it is just as true that honor often demands a response to effrontery, especially when it is not our own honor we are defending.

What I am saying, in other words, is that free speech is more of a rule for what the government cannot do than a guiding principle for life. As a moral principle, it fails the same way that libertarianism fails generally. That philosophy does not recognize the need for a shared moral code in society. The United States Constitution limits government censorship of speech but never tells us what man is or what happiness he ought to pursue. It does not explain that no matter how law-abiding a citizen may be, there will never be neighbors living in peace so long as there is contempt between them. It does not and cannot explain what peace is, or what neighbors are, or that speaking in a certain way will inevitably make people hate you, and that this is natural and human and just. That is because the constitution only limits government power and trusts other moral authorities to guide man in forming a functioning society, a role fulfilled at the time of the constitution’s writing by religion.

It slanders the founders to say they considered all speech that is legal to be right. It is false to assume that they sought no Judeo-Christian peace and love of their neighbors and always spoke whatever dark thought entered their minds. This is to attribute to the Founders a post-modern nihilism, a view of society in which every individual truly is detached from the common good. Not merely declining to centrally legislate for the common good, but rather failing to care about it at all, which is madness.

The notion that society will survive just as well with every man truly caring only about his own affairs goes not against the legal but against the moral core of our country. It is a cruel nearsightedness warned against by the holy texts of our religions, in which “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours,” a society of alienation, detachment, and moral turpitude.

It leads to a situation in which base opportunists with racist followers are defended by conservatives when they are kicked off Twitter. True, Twitter is run by progressives with a double standard. But two wrongs do not make a right. People from whom the average conservative would have categorically distanced themselves ten years ago are defended with the perennial argument that got Mr. Trump nominated, the argument that the left does worse all the time.

A man who says whatever he wants is a slave to his worst impulses. Though the government should not stop him, he should stop himself, and we should look down on him when he doesn’t. But instead, we now defend his right to service from a private company, no matter what he says, and call his political views conservative if he makes feminists upset.

All because “the left is worse”.

Two wrongs make a right to free speech, anywhere, at anyone’s expense.

And don’t you dare get offended…

Why I Am A Plastic Bag Optimist

On the matter of whether I need to feel guilty when disposing of garbage in plastic bags, my intuitive reaction is a resounding “no.”

But why?

My imagination is as open as the next fellow’s. I can see in my mind’s eye the garbage truck and its massive pile of billowing polymers, and the landfill where those membranes will sit, sheathing their payloads of rotting chicken and eggshells for a thousand thousand years or whatever. “We are choking the earth!” people say. “We will die if we go on like this.” Again, I imagine. I see with my mind’s eye the vast brown Mad Max wastes, in which the endless red sand dunes shift in the wind to reveal the desert’s bedrock — a sea of plastic bags, a straightjacket on the earth.

When I think of this I fill with horror. I have worn polyester pants on a hot summer’s day, and I understand how the earth might feel under all that plastic. On a serious level: won’t our massive-scale waste practices couple with non-biodegradable materials lead to some sort of massive environmental catastrophe?

Let me tell you why I used to think the answer was “no.”

I used to think the answer was “no” based on a certain childlike faith in G-d. That is, He wouldn’t let this sort of mass catastrophe take place. He would surely intervene.

But relying on G-d’s direct intervention is silly. After all, some pretty terrible things have happened on a large scale that seriously challenged and continue to challenge our notions of what a beneficent G-d would allow in his world. Now, granted, none of those scenarios was apocalyptic (Except perhaps for the Biblical flood); they were merely really. really unpleasant, like the holocaust. Still, the line between the categories is blurred, and if you’re risking millions of lives with your plastic bags on the chance that the environmental outcome would assuredly be so bad that G-d would have to step in, I’m not sure if I’d go to Vegas with you.

The G-dly intervention way of thinking is dear to my heart. I feel it is an expression of deep faith and it’s important not to lose it in light of a more reasoned explanation. Nevertheless, there is a more reasoned explanation why not to freak out about plastic bags.

It is a deeper, more adult form of faith to realize that things are the way they are largely because they have to be that way. In other words, the way things could work out has all been worked out from the get-go. The world is a put-up job. Barring some mass decision on humanity’s part to exercise their free will and intentionally bring about an environmental holocaust (as it was the intention of the Nazis to bring about their holocaust), there is very little reason to think such a situation will come about by accident.

Think about it: There is nothing especially dangerous about a landfill. A landfill is to a city what a trash can is to a house. Though it’s true that the trash can empties into the landfill and the landfill does not empty into anything per se, and thus our visions of an entire Wall-E world piled up with trash, planet Earth at the end of the day is ridiculously, preposterously gigantic, and the future in which we are in danger of living in a wasteland made of garbage is remote. The only concern on that account would be for our descendants, and it is hard to even imagine what technology will be able to do even twenty-five years from now, never mind in that far away future when our garbage is supposed to hit critical mass.

No; unless we are some sort of innate doomsayers, utterly responsible for negative outcomes of our actions to an infinite degree, then the connection between my garbage now and the doomsday of my imagination is quite tenuous. It is the same sort of thinking that says we should be nice to our machines now because the robots will not be kind when the revolution comes. It is imaginative; it is possible; it is a ridiculous way to make decisions right now. I think most people would, upon thinking about it, come to agree that our trash worries are similar.

So, what, then, is the big deal? Why do I, too, sometimes fear this outcome? If, on the level, the trash itself is not the problem, what is?

Environmentalists say that it is not so much the garbage itself that is the issue, but rather that garbage is the indicator of other stresses we are putting on the planet with our resource consumption.

I think this hits the nail on the head.

I think what I fear is not what we humans may actually do, but rather our potential to do it. The concern when I put yet another Glad bag out to chill on the sidewalk is not really that I’m helping bring the trashpocalypse, but rather that I am brought to consider my ability to unintentionally cause that great calamity. The guilt is not the guilt of having committed a crime I fully understand, but the diffuse, generalize guilt that comes with power uncompensated by responsibility.

As smart apes with atom bombs and Snapchat, the trip to the end of the driveway is a moment to stop our thoughtless day-to-day activities in service of ourselves and consider what we are effecting on a wider scale. We realize, just for a moment, that there is no check on us whatsoever, that between us and the destruction of the world is only happenstance, that is everyone on earth started throwing all their trash bags into their backyards in unison, or whatever, we could end the world.

Then our critical faculty engages and we are forced to conclude: G-d wouldn’t allow it.

Not “he wouldn’t allow it” because he would intervene and cut power to all the platic factories or the oil refineries or whatever. He intervenes by having made the world exactly as it is.

Smart apes could conceivably destroy their world accidentally. Man, created in the image of G-d, cannot. There is more than happenstance between us and oblivion. On the contrary, we were created on this balanced sphere to bring it to perfection and completion.  It is our resource, and we are its resource, and we were made for each other.

Now, one could respond that certainly as man naturally is he would not destroy the earth; but humans have chosen to exploit her and this will lead to her ultimate destruction, and theirs. Aside from the fact that this argument more or less reduces to an argument that we return to hunter-gatherer societies, which are theoretically man’s “natural,” non-exploitative pursuit, I feel that this argument completely fails to recognize what we really mean when we say man is created in G-d’s image. It is saying somehow that using the earth is not man’s role, that technological progress and the utilization of resources is outside of G-d’s plan and against his will.

It is saying, at essence, that it is only the ape in man who naturally fits into the world, but that the man in man is somehow at odds with the system he was placed into, that mans’ discovery of, say, the steam engine is some sort of divine misplay, that these are secrets not meant to be pried into for we will end up ruining the perfect world with our meddling.

Truly, this gives man too much credit. It is not viewing him as part of G-d’s world at all.

I do not understand the religious view that holds the smart ape conception of man is limiting, whereas the if we are all children of G-d we are free of all bounds. Really, the opposite is the case.

An ape with a brain has infinite potential, and that is terrifying. He can as easily destroy the world as uphold it and that he has not yet destroyed it reflects a disappointing lack of ambition. An ape with a brain could, in theory, do anything.

Man, however, as classically conceived, is not a powerful creature in a moral vacuum, free to move about the billiard balls of material existence as he wills. He is placed on earth with a purpose, and all of his faculties are directed toward beauty, transcendence, discovery, knowledge, peace. Though he may often choose to go against that nature, he is by definition part of the system of the world, and not in dominion over it. To imagine that his building a factory inherently changes anything is to underestimate G-d’s foresight and overestimate our own power. It is to believe that all that separates the entire project from destruction is time and happenstance.

Thus, even when a man thoughtlessly buys plastic, and thoughtlessly sends it to the landfill, he is compelled to realize that though thoughtlessness is a vice rather than a virtue, a thoughtless vice will not G-d’s creation unmake.

This isn’t due to G-d’s capacity for intervention, but rather due to the inherent nature of people and things, a qualitative inherent nature not often spoken about.

If we spoke about it more often, it might relieve a bit of stress.

Taking out the trash is not a moment to realize our terrible, tremendous power. It is a moment to remember that we have a chance, if we choose, to transform the only parts of life which we truly control, our moral decisions, into an to altar the creator of the system that binds us.