Bob Schwartz

Month: March, 2014

Republican Jewish Coalition and the Sabbath

Republican Jewish Coalition Spring Leadership 2014

It’s Saturday, the Sabbath in Jewish communities. Why is this Sabbath different than all other Sabbaths?

Because on this Sabbath Sheldon Adelson’s Republican Jewish Coalition is continuing its three-day Spring Leadership Meeting, including a galaxy of political and policy stars looking for support, prestige, power, and money, including:

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
Ohio Governor John Kasich
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker
Vice President Dick Cheney
Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer
Ambassador John Bolton

It’s true that the majority of American Jews don’t fully honor the Sabbath as a time for rest, reflection, and study. It’s also true that some number of those do try in small ways to live in the spirit of the Sabbath. Where Sheldon Adelson and the RJC sit on this spectrum of Sabbath observance and honor is between them and their God and their party.

One of the things that most non-Jews and many Jews don’t recognize is the complex significance of the Sabbath. The year is filled with special days, some regarded as very serious, very important and, in the case of the High Holidays, literally awesome. The Sabbath, though, stands apart, characterized as a beloved or royalty, as a bride or queen.

The great, deep and inspiring Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote an incomparable work on the nature and meaning of this. The Sabbath presents a spiritual picture of what he calls sacred time. The book is considered by readers of all faiths and even no faith an uplifting view of how we are to live in the context of such a powerful reality.

It would be presumptuous to say whether the late Dr. Heschel, who among his many achievements marched with Martin Luther King in Selma almost fifty years ago, would attend the RJC Spring Leadership Meeting. In any case, most likely not the RJC on the Sabbath.

Although the RJC will be holding its political beauty pageant today, they still might have a moment to squeeze in some Heschel. This passage from the Epilogue of The Sabbath is out of context, and not so easy to appreciate on its own. It does have something to say about space, which can be owned and fought over, and time, sacred time, in which we are all joined and connected and sharing—no matter who you are, no matter how many casinos you own, no matter how big your PAC:

Time, then, is otherness, a mystery that hovers above all categories. It is as if time and the mind were a world apart. Yet, it is only within time that there is fellowship and togetherness of all beings.

Every one of us occupies a portion of space. He takes it up exclusively. The portion of space which my body occupies is taken up by myself in exclusion of anyone else. Yet, no one possesses time. There is no moment which I possess exclusively. This very moment belongs to all living men as it belongs to me. We share time, we own space. Through my ownership of space, I am a rival of all other beings; through my living in time, I am a contemporary of all other beings. We pass through time, we occupy space. We easily succumb to the illusion that the world of space is for our sake, for man’s sake. In regard to time, we are immune to such an illusion.

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The Torah and the Supreme Court: Tazria and Scalia

Women of the Supreme Court

This week the portion of the Torah read in Jewish communities is Tazria (Leviticus 12:1–13:59). This week the Supreme Court heard arguments in the widely reported Hobby Lobby case. There is a significant but not obvious connection between the two.

Leviticus is the one of the Five Books of Moses that has the least action and the most rules. Lots of rules about the behavior of the Jewish people. In the thousands of years since those rules flowed into the processes of cultural and social oral tradition, and in the thousands of years since those traditions were set down in writing, different Jewish people and communities have determined which to honor and which to ignore. Those decisions are based on what exactly one thinks these rules are: God-given and inviolable, or ancient and subject to temporizing to suit modern philosophy and life. We should not wear clothing made from two different fabrics, Leviticus says. Non-literal interpretations of this have been conceived for centuries, but it says what it says, or rather, God says what God says. But what’s so wrong about a wrinkle-free, 60/40 cotton-poly blend shirt?

The Tazria portion begins:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. If she bears a female, she shall be unclean two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days.

On the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it before the Lord and make expiation on her behalf; she shall then be clean from her flow of blood. Such are the rituals concerning her who bears a child, male or female. If, however, her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. The priest shall make expiation on her behalf, and she shall be clean.

 The attitude toward and treatment of this passage in a modern context ranges widely, depending on belief sets. Some express wholesale acceptance and obedience (except for the sheep and bird sacrifice). Some faithfully regard it as God’s word, but pass it through interpretive filters suitable for the times. Some see it as a reflection of ancient people making sense of the mysteries of God and life.

One of those mysteries, of course, is women. Especially for men. Especially for the strange and foreign ways that women “work”. No matter your ideology, no matter how much the passage is accepted or spun, it is not hard to read meaning. Women are different. Some of that difference renders them unclean, even if that part is functionally essential (e.g., sex, birth). That uncleanness can be fixed, but it will cost you (e.g., lambs, pigeons).

The Hobby Lobby cases (Kathleen Sibelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services v. Hobby Lobby; Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius) concern the interaction of two federal laws: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which aims to protect Americans from intrusion on their religious lives, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which, among other things, requires employers to offer health insurance that includes coverage for contraception. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the religious right of companies such as Hobby Lobby, which has Christian objections to providing that coverage, overcomes the particular requirement of the ACA.

The big legal issues are complex and significant. One arises every time religion is in the mix: we protect religion in this country, both in its expression and establishment, but in a nominally secular country, that is bound to clash with civil rights that may contravene religious belief. This isn’t easy to resolve, but resolve it we do. If, for example, your religion happens to believe that people of color are lesser human beings, and you are “commanded” to treat them accordingly, you still cannot follow that faith in the public square or the marketplace.

The other big legal issue is whether a company such as Hobby Lobby is a “person” able to enjoy religious liberties in the first place. We’ve seen this come up before and will again. Citizens United is the most recent and famous case deciding that enterprises may enjoy free speech, First Amendment rights, just as you do. Then there is Mitt Romney, former presidential candidate, who will forever be identified with his own legal interpretation of the issue: “Corporations are people, my friend.”

Besides these, the Hobby Lobby case is widely viewed as being about women, because practically it is. The ACA requirement that health insurance include contraceptives for women is a practically and realistically sound policy. A large majority of women use contraceptives, either for health reasons or, more frequently, to prevent conceiving as a result of sex. Preventing conception has a number of advantages, including avoiding unwanted or unplanned pregnancies. An advantage of this is that women do have sex, and do want to avoid pregnancy. It’s that basic. And then there’s this: many of those women who want to prevent conception are having sex with men.

The transcript of oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case shows, as usual, a deeply divided court. Beyond the interesting central arguments concerning religious freedom and the personhood of corporations, there is a subtle subtext (some might say not so subtle). To a certain extent, the law, and arguments about it, are clinical. To the greatest extent possible, questions about impact are subservient to questions about the law itself: what it says, what was intended, how it works with other laws and with the Constitution. The rule of law prevails over the rule of people, and if the impact is unfair or disproportionate but still constitutional and legal, well, change the law.

But that has never been, will never be, and can never be how it works. Everyone—judges, lawyers, litigants, citizens—comes to the table with histories, psyches, lives, all the riches and trash we can carry. That’s how a case that seems about one thing can be, at least in small part, about another. That’s how the Hobby Lobby case is about women, something the three women on the Supreme Court without question get, something the six men may or may not.

Do read the transcript of the argument and maybe a few of the almost one hundred appellate briefs filed in the cases. In the arguments, you won’t find any express misunderstanding of the lives and impact of the case on women, though you may if you read between the lines. The briefs, which come from just about every corner of American society and politics, are a little clearer on how this is about women in ways that are not just incidental.

This brings us back to Tazria. It is easy to dismiss the passage as archaic, particularly for those who have found ways to work through or around it. Similarly, you may consider the Hobby Lobby case one about important and respectable religious and legal doctrines, and it is.

It can’t be said often enough: Men don’t get it and they can’t. They don’t know what it’s like to menstruate or be capable of bearing children or of having children. They don’t know what’s it like to be treated as unclean because of all of that, and then to be hypocritically treated as enjoyable and useful for those very same reasons. They don’t know how it feels to have some very simple means of adjusting all that, and then to have those means treated as something both profound and trivial, but not important.

Men don’t know, even if they are at the pinnacle, writing scripture or dispensing justice. So pleading ignorance, a little humility, a little learning, and a little compassion might be in order.

Bookstores in New York

 

Rizzoli Bookstore

Bookstores in New York
The gleaming rooftops at sundown
Oh, bookstores in New York
It lifts you up when you run down

Dreamers with empty hands
They sigh for exotic lands

It’s bookstores in New York
It’s good to live it again

Apologies to Vernon Duke, Autumn in New York, the greatest of all Manhattan songs

The New York Times ran a story this week, Literary City, Bookstore Desert: Surging Rents Force Booksellers From Manhattan .

If you’re interested, you can read the story yourself. If you’re paying any attention to New York, business, media, or culture, you already know the story. Bookstores under siege by the rise of Amazon and digital books. Manhattan rents skyrocketing. The number of people who care about or have actually had the bookstore experience falling. The number of people who associate the Manhattan experience with the bookstore experience falling faster.

Above is a picture of the Rizzoli bookstore on West 57th Street. It will be closing soon, as the building owner will be tearing down the building. It is not the only great bookstore, past or present, which has contributed to the specialness of Manhattan. It is, though, a good example of that. If you have not walked down 57th, and have not turned into Rizzoli, and have not walked up those stairs and past those shelves, you will have to imagine. The same goes for all the other big and small bookstores of Manhattan, some less grand on less grand streets, all of them filled with books. All of them places to get lost for a while, for a long while if the aisles are long and the shelves high, the way you get lost in a flirtation or a lifelong love.

This is not nostalgia. This is not romance, at least not the kind that constructs an unreal and unattainable dream. It is real, it is still there, for now, the bookstores, the books, the place and time to scan the titles, to pick up and pull out and leaf through and browse. A refuge from the Manhattan streets, or whatever streets you walk, a place and time to be yourself, to be anywhere, and mostly to fall in love. It’s still good to live it.

Afghanistan Loves Russia

Hamid Karzai - Congress

Karzai and Putin sitting in a tree
K-I-S-S-I-N-G

In 1979, Russia invaded Afghanistan. The U.S. supported the insurgents who eventually chased Russia out of Afghanistan. In 1989, Russia left Afghanistan.

In 2001, al-Queda attacked the U.S on September 11. That same year, the U.S. sent troops to Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power and to eliminate their safe haven for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

In 2004, Hamid Karzai was elected President of Afghanistan. That image above shows him addressing a joint session of Congress on June 15, 2004, with Vice President Dick Cheney and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert applauding.

In 2011, the U.S. found and killed Osama bin Laden. Plans were made to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but not before thousands of U.S. and other allied troops died, in the longest war in U.S. history.

In 2013, negotiations began with President Karzai for an agreement that would allow some U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan in a support role after withdrawal. President Karzai, not wanting to appear to be in friendly partnership with the U.S., has so far failed to reach such an agreement.

Today, President Karzai announced that he supports the Russian position in Crimea, putting him in the same league as Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. We still have troops in Afghanistan. The troops who died on behalf of President Karzai are still dead. The Afghans who died at the hands of the Russians are still dead. There are no reports yet about whether Dick Cheney or Dennis Hastert are still applauding.

There are no words to make sense of this. So instead, here is the Afghan flag, along with an explanation of the flag from the ever-authoritative CIA Factbook. Note especially the part about the Afghan flag having more changes in it than any other national flag in the 20th century. As always, a funny old world.

Afghanistan Flag

Three equal vertical bands of black (hoist side), red, and green, with the national emblem in white centered on the red band and slightly overlapping the other two bands; the center of the emblem features a mosque with pulpit and flags on either side, below the mosque are numerals for the solar year 1298 (1919 in the Gregorian calendar, the year of Afghan independence from the UK); this central image is circled by a border consisting of sheaves of wheat on the left and right, in the upper-center is an Arabic inscription of the Shahada (Muslim creed) below which are rays of the rising sun over the Takbir (Arabic expression meaning “God is great”), and at bottom center is a scroll bearing the name Afghanistan; black signifies the past, red is for the blood shed for independence, and green can represent either hope for the future, agricultural prosperity, or Islam Afghanistan had more changes to its national flag in the 20th century than any other country; the colors black, red, and green appeared on most of them.

Putin’s Moldovan Invasion v. Dynasty’s Moldavian Massacre

Dynasty Royal Wedding
A cliffhanger is a cliffhanger. Russia may be about to invade its neighbor Moldova, based on troop buildup along the border. Almost thirty years ago, on May 15, 1985, the ABC series Dynasty ended Season 5 by leaving the world hanging, as terrorists invaded and shot up the royal wedding of Prince Michael of Moldavia and Amanda Carrington.

(Note: To clarify the Moldavia/Moldova confusion. Moldavia is a traditional region that now straddles the nations of Romania and Moldova. The language of Moldova is Romanian, and the Romanian name for Moldavia is Moldova. The producers of Dynasty may or may not have been aware of this, or that Moldova was at the time a part of the Soviet empire, or much else geographic. Dynasty was not a documentary or reality series. “Prince Michael of Moldavia” just sounded so cool and romantic, as was the fake country.)

Who would survive this now infamous Moldavian Massacre (you can watch it here)? Viewers of Dynasty, then #1 in the ratings, would have to wait all summer to find out. Meanwhile, that season-ending episode reportedly attracted 60 million viewers.

Will Putin invade Moldova, claiming that just as with Crimea, Moldovans are pleading to join up with their Russian friend and neighbor (and former ruler)? How will the world respond? How will Putin respond to that? That’s a real cliffhanger. And even though Putin seems to be playing a part in a costume epic, in which he is the royal hero, a sort of Putin’s Dynasty, this is no television series. Perhaps Czar Vladimir of Russia will wake up and see that.

Turkey Goes Radioactive

Erdogan and Twitter
Turkish Prime Minister Tayip Erdogan tried to close down Twitter in Turkey yesterday. Instead it exploded in his face, like a digital trick cigar.

Erdogan is miffed because Twitter is being used to disclose details about corruption, including the broadcast of phone conversations. “Twitter, mwitter,” he ranted as he blocked access.

The world noticed and, of course, tweeted. So did those in Turkey, who circumvented the ban by using an SMS text-based version.

As previous posts point out, Turkey is unlike any country in the world. Its path to modern democracy is unique and apparently unfinished. More than a bridge between east and west, it is a bridge between ancient and very modern. No nation, except perhaps for Israel, has experimented so creatively with making the past present, the past future, and the present and future past.

And, without any particular personal or filial or ancestral connection, it was for me love at first visit.

Also, even if you have no other feeling for it or reason to watch it, watch carefully. Turkey is a bellwether. If democracy and modernism proceed hand-in-hand there, there is great hope for the world, if not necessarily a replicable model. If Turkey cannot pull off that trick, we should all be concerned. Very concerned.

Erdogan has no plans to give up. But when I heard this morning’s score—Twitter 1, Erdogan 0—the song that came to mind was Radioactive by Imagine Dragons:

I’m waking up
I feel it in my bones
Enough to make my systems blow
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
Welcome to the new age, to the new age
I’m radioactive, radioactive
I’m radioactive, radioactive

Thor Gives Birth to Twins

Thor
Nobody wants to hear from word nerds. They just stifle creativity and block linguistic evolution with their definitions and rules. Humpty Dumpty from Alice in Wonderland is the man (or eggman): words mean exactly what anybody says they mean.

Except they don’t, or they can’t or shouldn’t. If you tell a doctor you have a pain in your leg, and she examines and treats your arm, because leg now means arm, everybody has a problem.

Here’s the TMZ story that’s been widely picked up:

Chris Hemsworth and Elsa Pataky — Give Birth to Twins
Thor’s Got Twins Now!

3/20/2014 4:14 PM PDT BY TMZ STAFF
EXCLUSIVE

Chris Hemsworth and his wife are at Cedars Sinai Medical Center right now giving birth to twins … TMZ has learned.

It’s ultra-high security in their hospital suite … we’re told 2 security guards are standing at the door.  Chris is strolling the hallway and is being escorted with a guard.

Chris and his wife Elsa Pataky already have one baby — India Rose Hemsworth who is now 22 months old.  She’s about to have a couple new siblings.

Chris and Elsa were married in 2010.

This led to headlines like this one in the New York Daily News:

Chris Hemsworth, wife Elsa Pataky giving birth to twins

Nobody may care, except for mothers, doctors, and Mrs. Chris Hemsworth, but “giving birth” is not the same as parents having a baby. “Birth” is variously defined as “The emergence and separation of offspring from the body of the mother” or “The event of being born, the entry of a new person out of its mother into the world.”

Chris Hemsworth can be a proud and involved daddy. So can Thor. But neither of them can give birth, no matter what TMZ or the Daily News say.

It’s Spring. It’s Snowing.

Spring Snow
It’s spring. It’s snowing.

It is the most beautiful snow of the year. No wind, big flakes dropping so slowly that it seems like suspended animation. Like being in a snow globe.

But it is spring. Maybe this is saving the last for best.

Spring: Flowers in the Sky

The Plum Blossoms - Henri Matisse
This message for the start of spring comes from the masterpiece Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Shobo Genzo) by Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen.

The passage is taken from Fascicle 44, Flowers in the Sky, written in 1243:

Thus, when the time comes, flowers open. This is the moment of flowers, the arrival of flowers. At this very moment of flowers arriving, there is no other way. Plum and willow flowers unfailingly bloom on plum and willow trees. You see the flowers and know plum and willow trees. You understand flowers by looking at plum and willow trees. Peach and apricot flowers have never bloomed on plum and willow trees. Plum and willow flowers bloom on plum and willow trees. Peach and apricot flowers bloom on peach and apricot trees. Flowers in the sky bloom in the sky in just this way. They do not bloom on other grasses or trees.

Seeing the colors of flowers in the sky, you fathom the limitlessness of fruit in the sky. Seeing the opening and falling of flowers in the sky, study the spring and autumn of flowers in the sky. The spring of flowers in the sky and the spring of other flowers should be the same. Just as there are a variety of flowers in the sky, there should be a variety of springtimes. This being so, there are springs and autumns in the past and present.

Those who assume that flowers in the sky are not real and other flowers are real have not seen or heard the Buddha’s teaching. To hear the words that the sky originally had no flowers and assume that the flowers in the sky that did not exist do exist now is a lesser view based on shallow thinking. Step forward and think deeply.

Ukraine: Adolf Hitler and William Faulkner

Adolf Hitler - William Faulkner
The term lingua franca means a language that is understood across cultures. It literally means “Frankish language,” referring to a hybrid language that was used for commerce and diplomacy during the Renaissance. Today, one might call English a lingua franca, since unofficially and officially (as in air transport), it is the one universally used and understood.

In contemporary history, the person who comes up most often as an historical analogy is Adolf Hitler. For good reason. Others may have killed more. Others may have conquered more territory. But Hitler did it all, ignited world war, and did it in our times, in living memory, and in ways that shaped the world—and thus shaped our thinking and conversation now and for generations to come. He is the historical persona franca.

A previous post pointed out that Putin’s post-Olympics invasion of Ukraine bested Hitler’s annexation of Austria in March 1938. Hitler waited almost two years after his self-promotional 1936 Berlin Olympics before the Anschluss; somewhat bizarrely, even though Putin politely waited for two days after the Paralympics in Sochi closed, the annexation of Crimea was effectively done while the Olympics were still being held.

When Hillary Clinton mentioned in a speech that Putin’s actions were reminiscent of Hitler, she was shushed up by her supporters and her detractors. Talk like that was deemed premature, alarmist, undiplomatic, and, in Hillary’s case, unpresidential. And yet as events have sped along, the mentions increase. Just today, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia had to admit that we have not seen an event like the annexation of Crimea since…the 1930s. And whether Hitler is a persona franca or a trump card, Putin uses it himself, claiming that the Ukrainian ouster of Yanakovych was orchestrated by Nazi thugs who are now in power.

History matters, and Hitler matters in history, whatever use he may be in thinking about the critical issues developing in Ukraine. This year is the centennial of World War I (also known as THE World War and the War to End All Wars, before there was a second one). So maybe take a little time to learn a little more about Europe in the period from 1914 to 1945—a mere thirty years or so in which there were two world wars, one of the most evil men in history, an attempt to eliminate an entire people from the earth, and the development of an apocalyptic weapon that gives God a run for his money.

Why learn this history? Because literally everything that is in the news about Russia and the Ukraine is joined with it. Because history never goes away, particularly in Europe. Or anywhere. As William Faulkner wrote, having lived in the American South where history never goes away, where understanding history is the only way to understand today, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”