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One grief, all worlds

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- from Gaza to Mt Sinjar and beyond, the universality and singularity of grief ]
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One grief at a time is enough. It is “unbearable”, meaning that it arrives at the limit of what we single humans can possibly endure.

How can one match this father’s face at the funeral of his son — one of the four boys killed while playing on a Gaza beach — caught here (above) by photographer Hosam Salem?

How can one match these words of Yassin Suliman, speaking of his cousin, also killed in Gaza?

We buried his legs this morning and we will bury his body this afternoon.

Do the fathers and mothers of the Israeli dead feel any the less grief?

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The Talmud, at Sanhedrin 37a, tells us:

For this reason was man created alone, to teach thee that whosoever destroys a single soul of Israel, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.

The mention here is of a single soul “of Israel”, a phrase that many contemporary Jewish sources omit — perhaps because the immediate context indicates a that it should be taken in a universal sense, since those particular words are immediately followed by the observation that the very diversity of HaShem’s creation of humanity is evidence of his greatness:

Furthermore, [he was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, that one might not say to his fellow, ‘my father was greater than thine, and that the minim might not say, there are many ruling powers in heaven; again, to proclaim the greatness of the holy one, blessed be he: for if a man strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the supreme king of kings, the holy one, blessed be he, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created for my sake.

Qur’an 5.32 picks up the idea and continues it:

On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.

Likewise, Qur’an 49.13 celebrates human diversity as evidence of the merciful intentions of the Merciful at ):

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).

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Somewhere in my recent readings — on Gaza, Hamas, Iraq, Syria, the caliphate, the Yezidis — I found a sentence to the effect that one person’s grief is about as much as we can savor. It was a casual observation, but the same idea has been stated as a philosophical and theological proposition by Wittgenstein, CS Lewis and others: I catalogued those I knew in Of Quantity and Quality II: Holocaust, torture and sacrament.

Matthew Barber, blogging about Sinjar and the Yezidi at Joshua Landis‘ Syria Comment in a post titled Sinjar Was Only the Beginning, tells us:

In my conversation with Osman, it struck me that I was encountering the pain of just one man among several hundred thousand new refugees in the Dohuk governorate, each with a unique story.

I ask again, how can one fully and richly feel the utmost grief of a single person, and multiply it? And in circumstances where so many are bereaved at once, how can one not attempt to multiply their individual griefs?

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Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones 3: a Judaic perspective

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- on the godliness of collateral child slaughter, viewed from the perspective of "he will become cruel to the compassionate" ]
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Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps, Psalm 137

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At the end of my second post in this series, I quoted the words of the rabbi, Jesus, as an appropriate transitional figure between Judaism and Christianity:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous….

I have mentioned that Anglican Christianity is my own “home” tradition, and it is. But I am a citizen of the world, and cannot afford to be bound by my own assumptions. As I consider Israeli actions in Gaza, therefore, I want to recall that Judaic assumptions may differ markedly from those I was raised with.

Thus Eliav Shochetman recounts the midrash, “He who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate” and quotes Maimonides as explaining its meaning in his Guide of the Perplexed thus:

compassion towards the wicked – is cruelty to all beings

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Here is Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, writng in First Things under the title The Virtue of Hate:

During my regular weekly coffees with my friend Fr. Jim White, an Episcopal priest, there was one issue to which our conversation would incessantly turn, and one on which we could never agree: Is an utterly evil man — Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden — deserving of a theist’s love? I could never stomach such a notion, while Fr. Jim would argue passionately in favor of the proposition. Judaism, I would argue, does demand love for our fellow human beings, but only to an extent. “Hate” is not always synonymous with the terribly sinful. While Moses commanded us “not to hate our brother in our hearts,” a man’s immoral actions can serve to sever the bonds of brotherhood between himself and humanity. Regarding a rasha , a Hebrew term for the hopelessly wicked, the Talmud clearly states: mitzvah lisnoso — one is obligated to hate him.

Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist and writer, put it pithily in an interview with Deutsche Welle:

I never agreed with Jesus Christ about the need to turn the other cheek to an enemy. Unlike European pacifists I never believed the ultimate evil in the world is war. In my view the ultimate evil in the world is aggression, and the only way to repel aggression is unfortunately by force. That is where the difference lies between a European pacifist and an Israeli peacenik like myself. And if I may add a little anecdote: A relative of mine who survived the Nazi Holocaust in Theresienstadt always reminded her children and her grandchildren that her life was saved in 1945 not by peace demonstrators with placards and flowers but by Soviet soldiers and submachine guns.

To understand further the differences between Judaic and Christian attitudes to what Soloveichik termed “The Virtue of Hate”, it may also be helpful to research the difference between the two faiths’ understandings of love. Soloveichik’s own God’s Beloved: A Defense of Chosenness would be a good place to start.

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For a non-Judaic western position comparable to that of Amos OZ and Meir Soloveichik, consider this passage from Machiavelli in his The Prince, XVII. Of Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether It Is Better to Be Loved or Feared:

I say that every Prince should desire to be accounted merciful and not cruel. Nevertheless, he should be on his guard against the abuse of this quality of mercy. Cesare Borgia was reputed cruel, yet his cruelty restored Romagna, united it, and brought it to order and obedience; so that if we look at things in their true light, it will be seen that he was in reality far more merciful than the people of Florence, who, to avoid the imputation of cruelty, suffered Pistoja to be torn to pieces by factions.

And for a modern similitude to the apparent difference between Judaic and Christian emphases explored in these last two posts, consider George Lakoff‘s analysis of American politics in terms of the Strict Father vs Nurturant Parent mindsets:

Well, the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline – physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

Thinking as I so often do in terms of koans, real life would seem to demand an admixture of both — and the question of how to move between them, one that only wisdom can answer.

Good luck with that.

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The image at the head of this post illustrating the verse “Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps” comes from Ilia Rodov, With Eyes towards Zion”: Visions of the Holy Land in Romanian Synagogues, in Quest: Issues in Contemporary Jewish History, Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n.6, December 2013. It shows an early 20th century wall painting from from the Great Synagogue of Iasi, photographed by Zussia Efron, from the collection of the Center for Jewish Art of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

By the bye, Amos Oz also has a “balancing acts and mirror images” quote in that interview he gave:

I believe the majority of the Palestinians are not in love with Israel, but they do accept with clenched teeth that the Israeli Jews are not going anywhere, just like the majority of Israeli Jews – unhappily and with clenched teeth – accept that the Palestinians are here to stay. This is a basis not for a honeymoon, but perhaps for a fair divorce just like the case of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

How’s that for balance with requisite nuance?

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Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones 2: a Christian perspective

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- on the godliness of collateral child slaughter, viewed from the perspective of "turn the other cheek" ]
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Suffer the little children to come unto me, Lucius Cranach the Elder

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At this point I would like to turn directly to our psalm, and specifically to its use and interpretation in my own tradition, that of Anglican Christianity: I hope to provide a further post on its Judaic context and understanding shortly.

Psalm 137 is the one that begins, in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer translation:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept *
when we remembered thee, O Sion.
As for our harps, we hanged them up *
upon the trees that are therein.
For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody, in our heaviness *
Sing us one of the songs of Sion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song *
in a strange land?

The question here is of the relation of music to grief: How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Tomás Luis de Victoria set the Latin of this portion of the psalm to ethereal music, as we hear in this perormance of Super Flurmina Babylonis by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen:

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The Psalm in question is a lamentation, a cry of despair, as one can easily tell from the tone of the Anglican setting sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, below — and yet its ending contains what I can only call a vindictive edge — remembering that vindictive, before it gains any other meaning, has a meaning that is cognate with vindication:

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem *
let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth *
yea if I prefer not Jerusalem in my mirth.
Remember the children of Edom, O Lord, in the day of Jerusalem *
how they said, Down with it, down with it, even to the ground.
O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery *
yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee, as thou hast served us.
Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children *
and throweth them against the stones.

With the words at your disposal, I invite you to listen closely to this austere and beautiful rendering of the whole psalm by the choir of King’s:

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The freshly-minted Anglican Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Rev Nick Bains, blogged just a few days ago:

Psalm 137 is not a comfortable song; nor is it a song for the comfortable. It ends with a shrill cry of pain and hatred: “God, I wish you’d take the children of my enemies and smash their heads against the rocks.” But, it isn’t there to justify an ethic. It isn’t there to suggest it is right to think such awful things of other people’s children. It is there for two reasons: first, to confront us with the reality of how deep our own human hatred can go, and, secondly, to tell us not to lie to God (thinking he can’t handle that reality or the depths of human despair).

Cranmer — the blogger who takes his name from the martyred Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury whose great gift to the English language was precisely the language of the Book of Common Prayer — quoted Bishop Bains, and had this to say of Psalm 137:

Such laments take us to the depths of helplessness and forsakenness. They are cries of distress when there is nowhere to turn: God has abandoned us and our enemies mock and scorn – or terrorise, persecute and murder. Impulsively but genuinely we want their children to be fatherless and their wives to become widows (Psalm 109:8f). And we hope to God that their bastard offspring don’t grow up to be another generation of murderous devils.

But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 19:14).

Those who are taught resentment and loathing will not easily find Jesus or enter the kingdom. Violence breeds violence and hate engenders hate. The way of Christ is peace. In our secular polis this may seem like sheer folly. But it is a choice we make in the hope and anticipation that God’s love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this may be possible when warring hearts are filled with grievances and pain.

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As I prepare to turn from Christian to Judaic consideration of this psalm in my final post in this series, I would like to quote the words of the rabbi, Jesus — himself surely an appropriate transitional figure between Judaism and Christianity:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous….

In saying these things, is Jesus teaching a distinctly Christian doctrine, or preaching as a Jewish teacher among Jews?

It’s a fine question. The book of Proverbs 25.21 reads: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread, if he be thirsty, give him water… — and the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia comments on Jesus’ remark that it might better be translated thus, in line with Jewish teaching:

Ye might deduce from this verse that thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy, but I say to you the only correct interpretation is, Love all men, even thine enemies.

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Tisha b’Av and Gaza

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- of the Temple Mount and Noble Sanctuary, by way of Bamiyan and Timbuktu, the Cordoba Mezquita and Cathedral ]
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The Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary, then and now

The Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary, then and now

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Today as I write this, it is Tisha b’Av — the day on which the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem took place in 587 BCE and 70 CR respectively — observed with mourning in the Jewish calendar.

I have recently been saddened by the destruction of sufi shrines by jihadist forces in Timbuktu and of Shia Husseiniyas in Tal Afar and Mosul. I am saddened by the destruction of the two Jerusalem Temples in much the same way that I mourn the destruction of so many other sacred sites across the centuries — most personally in my case, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Afghan Taliban within my lifetime. And I sympathize with those saddened by the imposition of a Christian cathedral in the middle of the Mezquita of Cordoba — and would be saddened yet again should that cathedral be torn down in the name of yet another “conquering” religion.

It is the habit of conquerors to destroy or reorient the shrines and temples of the conquered in alignment wiuth their own religious beliefs or secular ideologies, and likewise of the conquered to retain their own faith, either adapting it to continue under cover of the newer religion, or maintaining its memory with the hope of its soon revival.

Cordoba, the Mesquita / Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site

In the case of the Mezquita or Grand Mosque of Cordoba, the mosque itself was built on the site of a Visigoth church, and still contains its eastern wall in which the mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca is now situated. I tend to share the regret Carlos V expressed when he said of the cathedral built within the mosque:

You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.

Be that as it may, history is a palimpsest, and while I can sympathize with the grief Msulims feel at the loss of their great place of prayer in Cordoba, I can also sympathize woith those Christians for whom the cathedral is their place of worship.

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Likewise, while I can sympathize with how observant Jews feel at the loss of the First and second Temples, commemorated with fasting on this day, I am also vividly aware that on Temple Mount — known to Islam as the Noble Sanctuary — now stand the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, two structures sacred to observant Muslims.

As we consider the recent events in Gaza — warfare and ceacefires alike — and on the occasion of Tisha b’Av, it is worth remembering that as recently as a little over a year ago, Knesset member Uri Ariel suggested it was time to rebuild the Temple on Temple Mount:

Perhaps he envisioned the words of the prophet, “The glory of this latter house shall be greater than that of the former, saith the LORD of hosts; and in this place will I give peace, saith the LORD of hosts” (Haggai 2:9).

“We’ve built many little, little temples,” Ariel said, meaning synagogues, “but we need to build a real Temple on the Temple Mount.”

Rabbi Richman on Temple Mount

Indeed, today Rabbi Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute led a party of Jews up the Mount in commemoration of the two previous Temples, telling reporters:

Today, on Tisha B’Av, the day upon which the Holy Temple was destroyed, we came together with hundreds of Jews to the Temple Mount to fulfill the commandment of being in the holy place, to pray there for the welfare of the IDF soldiers who are defending all of Israel, and to show that the cycle of endless mourning can only end when the Jewish people are ready to accept responsibility for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. That responsibility rests squarely upon our shoulders. The sages of Israel have taught that the Holy Temple can only be rebuilt once the nation has achieved a level of unity and unconditional love. Throughout the past few weeks, our nation has been witness to a level of unity that is almost unprecedented in memory. This is the type of unity and commitment that will enable our generation, with the help of God and with the will of the people of Israel, to rebuild the Holy Temple.

Thus Gaza this year is interwoven with Tisha b’Av and the rebuilding of the Temple — on a site already occupied by the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock — in a manner which complicates the overall situation in Jerusalem with the “end times” expectations of not two but three great world religions.

Grief upon grief.

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For greater detail on these issues, see my posts Three from Haaretz on the Temple Mount and The most contested piece of real-estate on earth. As I noted in both posts, Gershom Gorenberg‘s book The End of Days is the definitive text exploring these differing apocalyptic expectations.

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Balancing acts & mirror images: 2

Friday, August 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- second of (at least) three posts, mostly about Gaza -- high wire stuff ]
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Here are two young women poets, the hope of the world, mirroring one another in a rare balancing act that leaves neither political / military side of the Israeli-Arab conflict uncritiqued, while the humanity of both sides is respected ansd loved:

It may be that the balance here is still too young and perfect…

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Here, then, are two tweets from Gershom Gorenberg, Israeli journalist and my admired Center for Millennial Studies colleague, attempting the delicate balancing act of loving his country with intelligence and nuance:

Gershom is quoting Joshua Gutoff, who describes himself thus:

Having finally completed a dissertation on Talmud and the development of the moral imagination, Joshua (a Conservative rabbi by training), is now a professor of Jewish education. An erstwhile contributing editor at the Jerusalem Report, he is available for speaking, teaching, writing, editing…

Gutoff’s longer piece, can we talk?, is worth your consideration.

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Here’s Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam, writing under the title Palestine must be free… from Hamas at Jewish News Online:

In such a poisoned climate, we should strive to maintain a certain moral courage and razor-sharp distinctions for our own sanity, if not for others. Terrorism aims to deliberately target civilians, and benefits specifically from their death or injury as a matter of policy. Hamas has this policy.

On the other hand, recklessly killing civilians in breach of the international laws of proportionality, while issuing warnings and apologies -– and while trying to target rocket launch sites that Hamas has based in mosques and hospitals –- results in a terrible and disproportionate number of deaths. It is deeply troubling, it must stop. But it is not terrorism.

No civilian death is justified. However, laws rightly differentiate types of killing, from accidental death, manslaughter, murder, to war crimes and terrorism. We must maintain level heads and some nuance if we are to approach this poisonous debate at all.

Nawaz, too, is seeking the right balance, the mot juste to explain what is indeed a subtle question.

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Henry Siegman, an Orthodox rabbi — one time head of the Synagogue Council of America, executive director of the American Jewish Congress and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations — now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project. Interviewed on Democracy Now, under the header, Leading Voice of U.S. Jewry, on Gaza: “A Slaughter of Innocents”, had this to say:

It [Israel] has what seems on the surface a justifiable objective of ending these attacks, the rockets that come from Gaza and are aimed — it’s hard to say they’re aimed at civilians, because they never seem to land anywhere that causes serious damage, but they could and would have, if not for luck. So, on the face of it, Israel has a right to do what it’s doing now, and, of course, it’s been affirmed by even president of the United States, repeatedly, that no country would agree to live with that kind of a threat repeatedly hanging over it.

But what he doesn’t add, and what perverts this principle, undermines the principle, is that no country and no people would live the way Gazans have been made to live.

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Again, the delicate balance is sought — and it interesting to see these two comments together, Nawaz the ex-Muslim terrorist sympathetic to the Israelis vs Hamas, Siegman the rabbi sympathizing with the inhabitants of Gaza…

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