The New Right to Life Movement

Violence rests heavy in the mythological and religious womb of our civilization. The first murder happens just verses after Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden. According to legend, Cain was stunned after he struck and killed Abel, as death had not yet inhabited the world. He was literally at a loss as to what to do. The birds taught him about how to bury the body.

Violence has never left us from that wayward moment. However, our biblical religions do not glorify the violence. When God commanded Israel to build a Tabernacle so that God might rest amongst the people Israel, part of the package was that the altar would not be hewn with metal. Metal brought death in the form of swords and the altar was a symbol of life. Death would not bring life. If a priest fought in a war, even a commanded war, a righteous conflict, he was forbidden to do the Temple service if he had taken life. King David was not allowed to build the Temple because his hands were bloodied.

The Torah might sanction war and violence in limited cases (self defense, perhaps), however even sanctioned violence is not glorified. Extinguishing the life of a person, even an enemy, even a bad person, is still an act of evil. Continue reading

Simple Things (Justice, Decency)

with carwasherosThis week has been the week when we have had to repeat simple truths over and over again.
Nobody should be killed by a bomb while watching a marathon.
Weapons of war should not be in the hands of civilians.
And yesterday I found myself standing with car wash workers outside the Aztec Car Wash in Century City demanding, among other things, that they be allowed to have bathroom breaks in a bathroom and not be forced to pee in a cup and then pour it down a drain. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, peeing in a cup has got to go!” That cringing feeling you just got reading that, is what I was feeling yesterday. It was the feeling that we should be past this. That it should be obvious already that workers deserve reasonable compensation and that they should be treated with dignity.
Martin Luther King went to Memphis on his last fateful trip almost fifty years ago to stand with sanitation workers demanding dignity. They carried signs that read “I am a man.” It is embarrassing that this sentiment is still up for debate.
This week’s Torah portion includes the exhortation: “Be Holy.” Sometimes, it seems, we are not even up to being decent. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, peeing in a cup has got to go.”
Simple statements that we, apparently have to repeat over and over again.
“What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now!”


Photo: Jonathan Klein


Ban the Guns, Strengthen Democracy

There are two different forces arrayed against gun control in the current debate—the forces of opposition and the forces of obfuscation. The forces of opposition are those whose allegiance to gun ownership brooks neither compromise nor debate. The forces of obfuscation are a more challenging opponent. Their stance is not a fealty to gun ownership per se, nor a mindless chanting of the fantastical slogans of opposition to government tyranny, neither are they simple supporters of easy and universal access to guns. They think gun owners should be trained, perhaps even licensed. Guns should be regulated. However, they stand on the peak of an Olympus of their own making from where they can discern that the territory is far more complicated than you know (you on the right, you on the left) and therefore none of your solutions are really helpful. Most mass killings were not carried out by people with rifles. Most of the gun violence in this country does not involve the types of weapons that the current and proposed laws would regulate or ban.

More importantly, nobody who is writing in support of gun control actually knows of what they speak. The editorial writers and pundits make rookie mistakes when speaking of weapons and ammunition. It’s enough to make you laugh out loud. Then, there is the fact that in the midst of a violent assault by a man armed with a gun it is better to be armed than unarmed; teaching people to defend themselves with furniture or their laptops is tragically absurd. Finally, those on the gun control side of the aisle need to admit that there are actually bad and violent people in this country and a person should defend themselves and their family. Ultimately, the obfuscator’s final argument (and Sam Harris has written one of the more eloquent of these) is that he has a gun, and he is trained to use it, and therefore he knows more about both the problem, and the problems with all the solutions, than you do. Continue reading

Should we be saying Kaddish for the Jewish Left?

Michael Walzer’s book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible makes a slightly controversial though eminently plausible argument. The book is an interesting analysis of the politics of the Bible by a political scientist, who is not a biblical scholar, but has written an important book on the uses of the Exodus story by liberation movements (Exodus and Revolution). After all the caveats, Walzer’s central claim is that the Bible writes in the tension between being born into the covenant, and affirming the covenant or taking it on of one’s own free will. This is the central theme of the Bible, and not any specific manner of governance. There is no room, according to Walzer for politics in the Bible, since all authority ultimately rests with God. There is also no call for communal action. The Bible, according to Walzer has an anti-politics. Isaiah, for example, rails against those who would ignore the widows and the poor on their way to the Temple, yet he does not try to organize the poor or lobby the priesthood. Or when Ezekiel castigates Judah for rehearsing the sins of Sodom—the sins of hoarding their riches and not sharing them with poor—he is not looking for a legislative or political remedy—he is channeling God’s rage at injustice.

It is an interesting book, and Walzer recognizes and notes all the difficulties in making specific claims about a text whose interpretation has been contested for centuries. He notes the usefulness of the scholarly and traditional interpretive literature for understanding certain questions, but not others.

Walzer apparently reprised the gist of his argument at a YIVO conference on the demise of the historical partnership between Jews and the left. Some on the right trumpeted Walzer’s presence as a final sign that there is no basis in traditional Judaism for a politics of the left. Walzer, after all, is the long-time editor of Dissent and a social-democrat—and he is claiming that the left-Jewish alliance is as a castle on sand. Check-mate. There is no, nor has there ever been a basis for leftist politics, for social justice advocacy grounded in any traditional Jewish textual framework. The Tablet’s Adam Kirsch and Jewish Ideas Daily‘s Alex Joffe could barely contain themselves.

Something, however, is seriously off here. Continue reading