Archive for December, 2010

TRON AND TORAH

The Mishnah (Oral Torah), edited around 220 CE by Rabbi Judah HaNasi (Judah the Prince), offers wisdom from Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah: Im ein kemach, ein Torah / Im ein Torah, ein kemach (Avot 3:17). Without bread (literally flour) there is no Torah and without Torah, there is no bread.

Hungry people trying to survive lack the energy and time to study. But without studying the Law or in the broadest terms without cultivating a sense of the moral, ethical and spiritual, we compromise our ability to survive physically. Many of the decisions we make—like rushing to war—harm both others and ourselves.

But do we really need Torah—or its equivalent in the culture of your choice—to produce food and life’s necessities? Hollywood has delivered the answer yet again, although I find its latest statement highly paradoxical.

On Christmas Day, my family and I had dim sum for lunch and saw the movie, Tron: Legacy that evening. Tron: Legacy leads me to offer a principle related to that of R. Elazar on which the movie both touches and abandons: Without Torah there is no meaningful technology.

I like Tron: Legacy’s premise that “users”—human beings—are more important than “programs,” the technology itself. Conflict develops on the Grid (within the computer environment) when programs oppress users who find their way in. The programs—technology—have sought to create perfection but fallen short. They’re angry and violent. Humans understand that perfection is impossible. The Mishnah cites Rabbi Tarphon: “You are not required to complete the work  [repairing the world], but you are not free to abandon it” (Avot 2:16). The tension can be overwhelming.

Of course, Tron: Legacy is not the first film to examine the impact of technology on humanity. But Tron: Legacy’s Imax/3D version seemed to undermine anything human about the film. The computer-generated images represent a complex, sophisticated technological achievement. Yet they only distract from a weak, cliché-riddled script. A great many reviewers agree.

While technology can augment a good film, it makes a poor substitute for human vision beautifully and meaningfully expressed. Technology for its own sake exploits audiences while pretending to enlighten them. It brings to mind the old saying about software development: Garbage in, garbage out.

Not that Tron: Legacy won’t be profitable. But Hollywood’s love of blockbusters dependent on technology denies many filmmakers the opportunity to tell stories on a smaller scale that touch both mind and heart. The King’s Speech, relying on a great script and wonderful acting, represents such a film.

Technology is a means not an end. We can use it to bake and distribute more bread or create empty illusions that leave us hungry. Technology—in Hollywood or in our homes—will better serve us with a little more attention to Torah.

EXODUS AND THE 112TH CONGRESS

This week, the Torah cycle forwards to the Book of Exodus or Shemot (Names). It falls on Christmas this year, so Christians’ equation of the birth of Moses with that of Jesus may be particularly strong. But the timing is coincidental. The lunar-based Jewish calendar floats within the secular year. Thus Jewish holidays always seem early or late but never on time.

Yet parallels abound. Exodus’ depiction of Egypt and its rulers over three millennia ago raises questions about the United States and the 112th Congress that meets on January 3.

The biblical story presents a great change in the fortunes of Jacob’s children and grandchildren settled in Egypt under the protection of an unnamed Pharaoh and his viceroy, Joseph—Jacob’s favorite son. When Joseph and his brothers die, the favor enjoyed by the Hebrews dissipates in proportion to their rapidly growing numbers.

“A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). This Pharaoh fears the Hebrews and oppresses them with forced labor. Then he instructs their midwives to kill all the newborn boys while sparing the girls. (I discuss the midwives’ identities in God’s Others.) The midwives, fearing God, refuse. Pharaoh then tells the Egyptian people, “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live” (Exod. 1:22). Can he really mean every Egyptian baby boy, too? A midrash (story) relates that astrologers tell Pharaoh that a Hebrew savior will be born but don’t reveal his identity. Pharaoh orders every newborn boy murdered. This seems to have inspired Matthew 2 in which Herod seeks out a newborn messiah—Jesus—who threatens his rule.

As to Congress, will it “know not Joseph” and duplicate Pharaoh’s self-destructive economics? Conservatives hold a majority in the new House and a minority in the Senate sufficient to stall legislation proposed by the White House. They tend to see President Obama as Pharaoh. I suggest that he more resembles Joseph, who fed and sustained Egypt during seven years of famine by taxing the people. (Conservatives should love Joseph’s flat twenty percent rate compared with today’s thirty-five percent retained for America’s wealthiest.) Joseph’s government had a role to play and played it well. While the President’s economic policies may not be perfect, hard choices have prevented a deep recession from becoming a depression. While the deficit poses ongoing challenges, economic growth gains traction. If Christmas retail sales mean anything, 2011 will be a better year.

We must also ask, will Congress explore a practical—as opposed to open-ended—immigration policy? Or will it demonize all immigrants—including the educated, hard working people our economy requires—figuratively “killing all the newborn boys” and choking off America’s labor force? And should partisan mean-spiritedness oppress the stranger, will we ultimately face our own ten plagues and such a calamity as the drowning of a later Pharaoh and his army in the Reed Sea?

The Pharaoh who knew not Joseph represented the worst traits of government. May this new Congress embrace the best.

THE EMPEROR’S NEW OLD CLOTHES

The emperor is naked. Again. Now what?

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” two weavers offer the emperor a new suit from cloth so delicate those who are stupid or foolish cannot see it. The Emperor accepts and wears his new clothes in a parade. Everyone praises his beautiful outfit. Only a little boy reclaims reality, calling out that the emperor isn’t wearing anything.

On December 14, one of the emperors of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, declared to a crowd in Gaza. “We said it five years ago and we say it now… we will never, we will never, we will never recognize Israel.” Spin it any way you want, but that’s as naked a statement of rejection as you can make.

How will the world respond? Will it disavow Haniyeh’s words? Or will it reinterpret them much as Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 maintained that, “Black is white and white is black”? As for the Palestinian Authority, will it continue the fiction of Palestinian reunification as a condition for reaching an agreement with Israel—of bringing Hamas into negotiations that Hamas declares purposeless? After three days, we’ve heard nothing. The silence leaves me more troubled than comforted.

Of course, it takes two. Will the Israeli government use Haniyeh’s statement to vindicate its refusal to extend compromises previously offered by former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert? Plain speaking: the Netanyahu government would be wrong to use Haniyeh’s speech as an excuse for abandoning a meaningful peace process with the P.A.—not that it isn’t backpedaling anyway. So far, not a word. But I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about Jerusalem’s policies. So what to do?

Tom Friedman in his New York Times column of December 11, “Reality Check,” proposed that the world step aside. If Israel and the Palestinians wish to pursue priorities other than peace, let them “live with the consequences.” I might agree if those consequences could be confined to Israel and the land on which a Palestinian state should reside. But the region can’t be hermetically sealed. We got that point on 9/11.

So I propose taking Friedman’s comments a step further. Let the United States in concert with the UN, European Union, Russia and the Arab League nakedly state what they already know. There will never be an agreement producing a viable Palestinian state and real peace unless both parties get down to the core issues and publicly acknowledge the only viable outcomes: East Jerusalem serves as the capital of Palestine. The Old City comes under joint/international control. Palestinian refugees forego a return to Israel while Israel contributes to the building of its new political neighbor. Settlers in the heart of the West Bank leave—or stay as permitted residents under Palestinian law. And a land swap enables Israel to keep its adjacent Jerusalem and Tel Aviv suburbs.

If anyone thinks that the core issues can be negotiated on any other terms, send me a check or money order for $1,000 and your size, male or female. I’ll stick an incredible new suit of the most delicate fabric in a #10 envelope and mail it immediately.

NETANYAHU REJECTS THE RABBIS

An overabundance of hatred burdens our world. Witness everything from the ranting of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s intention to stone yet another woman for adultery to Oklahoma’s attempt to constitutionally ban Muslim Shariah law, which plays no role in the state’s legal processes. But some people get it right.

Take the response of Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to this week’s appeal by right-wing Israeli rabbis to keep Jews from selling or renting property to non-Jews.

I’ve not been a supporter of Bibi (Netanyahu’s nickname). While I stand behind Israel’s need for and right to security, I believe that peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority—forcing Hamas to play ball or be further isolated—can and should be achieved. Yet I know that Bibi’s supporters on the right will do everything they can to dismantle the current peace process—one poorly thought out by President Obama as was President George W. Bush’s rushed and haphazard attempt at Annapolis in November 2007.

Nonetheless, Bibi’s straightforward rejection of the rabbis provides a clear lesson to those who delight in fanning the flames. “Such things should not be said, neither about Jews nor Arabs,” Netanyahu stated. “They must not be said in any democratic land, and especially not in a Jewish democratic state that respects the morality of the heritage of Israel and the Bible.” Bibi continued: “There are Jews and non-Jews in our midst. How would we feel if somebody were to say not to sell an apartment to the Jews? We would protest, and we do protest when this is said among our neighbors.”

Is Bibi grandstanding? Is he playing to Washington while covertly encouraging Israel’s intransigent right? Possibly. Yet his unambiguous statements represent the decency of Israeli Jews who can be concerned for their national sovereignty and security and still acknowledge the humanity of non-Jewish Israelis. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Today (December 10), thousands of activists supporting International Human Rights Day marched peacefully in Tel Aviv. I may not agree with all their specific positions—though I fully support human rights—but I’m delighted that they expressed their solidarity and position freely without interference. Israeli society is multicultural and anything but homogeneous in its politics. Israelis expect to express their opinions and do. Sadly, such a march in Tehran, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad or Riyadh would be fraught with danger.

In my post, “The Psychopath and the Fool” (10-29-10), I condemned hateful remarks about gentiles by Israel’s former Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef. I condemn the rabbis who wish to deny non-Jews in Israel their rights. I applaud Israeli Jews who, having suffered as “the other,” reject condemning non-Jews as “others.”

I also salute Bibi for saying the right thing right away. May his words soon help transform “peace” from a professed value into concrete reality.

Want a signed copy of GOD’S OTHERS: NON-ISRAELITES’ ENCOUNTERS WITH GOD IN THE HEBREW BIBLE? Send a check or money order for $25 to David Perlstein, 167 15th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94118. (U.S. orders only, please.) State to whom the book should be made out. For regular orders: iuniverse.com, Amazon.com or bn.com; or speak with your bookseller.

SNOW GLOBES AND ISLAM’S CIVIL WAR

Know those cute little snow globes—souvenirs of cities in northern climes? Don’t think about carrying one onto a plane. A few weeks ago, I saw a no-snow-globes sign in the New Orleans airport. New Orleans!

But I don’t downplay the Islamist threat. Bombs hidden in shoes or underwear or vehicles where crowds gather pose real dangers. Yet the struggle that involves us isn’t between Islam and the West. It’s within Islam.

A civil war is raging, and we’re caught in the crossfire. Islamists want to retreat to the seventh century and the time of the Prophet. Other Muslims wish to be part of the modern world, adapting Islam to it without rigid religious and cultural standards imposed by those who would establish a new caliphate.

America and the West stand in the Islamists’ way, and they fear us mightily. Why? I have to admit that President George W. Bush—whose administration harmed this nation terribly—hit the nail on the head. If only once.

After 9/11, Mr. Bush stated that terrorists (he couldn’t manage to say Islamists) hate us not for what we’ve done but for who we are. I agree. If Islamists took issue with America’s activities in the Middle East, as well as past European colonialism, they would be expressing political anger. But political conflicts can be overcome through negotiation and mutual concession. One’s enemy can become one’s friend. Been to Germany or Japan lately? Much more is involved.

Islamists fear the West’s commitment to democracy, capitalism (sensibly regulated), separation of church and state, and human rights. These values influence what we do because they define who we are.

If we withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan tomorrow, if we leave our bases in the Persian Gulf, if we abandon Israel, they’ll still hate us. After all, Western values—our weaknesses as well as strengths—make themselves known on the Internet and television, in films, music, art and fashion. We offer Muslims choices. Islamists loathe choice.

Read Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1996)? Those who believe that everyone in the world thinks the same way vilified it. The planet seems to have gone global. But differences among peoples exist. Thus the West interprets “justice” as finding agreed-upon solutions that end hostilities. In the Middle East, justice often equates to revenge. Theocracy—rule by God—creates a very different worldview among many in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Gaza. The West, which experienced centuries of religious warfare, rejects theocracy save for the fringe on the Christian and Jewish far right.

That being stated, let’s remember that many Muslims wish to be part of the global society and responsible citizens in Western nations. They must stand against Islamism. We in turn must engage them with respect. Otherwise, America and the West cannot uphold our cherished values and continue to be what we are.