Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dancing away the Holocaust

I take it that this has been making the Internet rounds, and stirring up some controversy along the way, but I just saw it for the first time.

Some group made a (very low budget) video of people dancing at various sights connected with the Holocaust (such as the gates of Auschwitz) to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.

Now, I completely understand why this offends many people. The Nazis killed 6 million Jews (and 6 million non-Jews), and almost wiped out our people. It’s arguably the single greatest act of evil in history. Seeing people making light, on the very grounds where so many died, will strike many as deeply, deeply inappropriate.

But, I have to admit, I find something very Jewish about this response. One of the most repeated Jewish one-liners is that every Jewish holiday can be summarized as “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” We tend to react to tragedy and oppression with a kind of ironic humor. We dance on the graves of our oppressors, generations after they are gone. Purim may be the clearest example of this – around the anniversary of the planned murder of all of the Jews in a kingdom, we throw a big party, dress up, get drunk, and make fun of our would-be, long-gone killer. Singing “I Will Survive,” while doing a really pathetic dance, precisely on the spots where the Nazis tried to wipe us out – it just seems to be part of that same spirit.

Of course, in this case, many, many people did die. Even though our people, as a people, has survived, and will survive, there are plenty of people alive today who can remember family members who were murdered in the Holocaust. I will survive. But, they didn’t. Is it too soon to celebrate this way? Does decency require that we wait a few generations, before making a new version of Purim? I don’t think so, but, again, I understand those who disagree.

If you’re not the type who gets offended at these things, watch the video. And celebrate that we’re still here – dancing as badly as ever.

The 10 Commandments and Morality

I recently saw, on YouTube, a clip from a talk given by Dr. Joel Hoffman. Some of you may remember Dr. Hoffman as our Scholar In Residence from last spring, and the author of the wonderful And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning*. In this clip, he’s talking about the 10 Commandments, and what makes them so special. He gave this same talk while he was here, and I found it intriguing, in part because it seemed to confirm something which I had previously heard, and found interesting, and important.

*I’ve been re-reading parts of Dr. Hoffman’s book, and I have to say that I find it utterly fascinating. If you have any interest in religion, OR if you have any interest in languages and, especially, translation, then you really owe it to yourself to pick up a copy.

If you want a tiny example which shows how hard it is to translate an ancient (dead) language, let me give you a favorite example from the book (I think – it might have been from his talk. But, it’s in there, somewhere). If you didn’t already know, would there be any way to tell, from the words themselves, that a garbage truck takes away garbage, but an ice cream truck brings ice cream? And, if you didn’t know that difference, how confusing would it be to try to understand, and translate, a book which talked about both?

It’s well known by now that the 10 Commandments were not original or unique, as was once thought. We used to believe (I’m told) that, until the 10 Commandments were handed down, murder was not illegal. That was the great contribution that those laws made – the content of the laws themselves. But, we now have plenty of evidence that murder (and theft, and adultery, and so on) were outlawed in many ancient societies (if my memory is right, it was the discovery of the Code of Hammurabi which destroyed this myth about the originality of the 10 Commandments). The Big-10 (as I’ll call them) were just restating old, widely accepted laws.

But, it’s possible that they are unique (or, at least were unique, when they first came to us) in a different, more subtly important way. They state, categorically and absolutely, what is right, and what is wrong.

Ancient law codes worked very much like our modern law codes, in that they are “if-then” statements. If you commit murder, then you go to jail (or are put to death). If you steal, then you must return what you stole and pay a penalty. But, nowhere does the law make a moral statement. Nowhere does American law (or most/any civil legal codes, or ancient legal codes) say, “it’s wrong to kill. You shouldn’t do it. Even if you don’t get caught, it’s still wrong.”

In other words, the 10 Commandments might have been unique, and still might be quite exceptional, in that they separate the morality of an action from the results of the action. To use Dr. Hoffman’s example, in America, if you decide that the fine for illegal parking is worth it, then nowhere does American law tell you that you are wrong for parking there. If you’re willing to pay the fine, then you can do the crime! There is no moral problem.

But, according to the Torah, it is never ok to break certain laws. Even if you’re willing to pay the penalty, even if you think it’s “worth it,” it still remains, in an absolute way, wrong to do so. The wrongness of an act exists in and of itself. The penalties are there to highlight or enforce the morality; but, even in the absence of those penalties, the acts would still be wrong.

Now, leave aside, for the moment, the question of the originality of the Big-10. I would say that this distinction, between “allowed/not-allowed” and “right/wrong” is an incredibly important one. In fact, it’s really at the core of the entire discussion of what morality really is – some things are just wrong. Results be damned, there is such a thing as right and wrong. Or, to quote Frasier, “morality is what you do when no one is looking.”

But, at the same time, I do wonder about the role of the Big-10 in all of this. Were they really the first attempt to write down morality, as opposed to penalties? Is it true that most/all legal systems still live in the world of if/then, and not in absolutes? I know that I’ve got historians, lawyers and other smart people who sometimes read this blog, so I’m interested in their takes on this.

In the end, that’s just a footnote; from wherever this distinction came, it’s a fundamental one. To me, it might be the single most important distinction in the entire world of religion. But, that footnote is still an interesting one to me. Anyone have any insight?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Getting back to…manliness

So, this blog has been quiet for a while now. The reasons are pretty simple – the normal end-of-the-year craziness kicked into gear, and my available time, and mental energy, were kind of scarce. Then, I went away for about 3 weeks – I had a week of vacation, followed by a week and a half at Camp Coleman (one of the summer camps run by the URJ (the main institution of the Reform movement); this one’s in Cleveland, Georgia).

As I try to get back into the blogging rhythm, I’ll share a little moment from camp. Let me say that Camp Coleman is a wonderful place. It’s physically beautiful (set in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains) and the daily schedule is filled with all of the camp-type activities that you’d expect – swimming, sports, arts and crafts (although, I don’t remember any camp I ever went to having an organic garden to tend, so that’s a bit different, I suppose). But, the really wonderful thing about Coleman is that, like all URJ camps, Jewish life and learning are a big part of camp life. There are regular programs where campers get to explore, in fun, creative ways, a huge range of Judaism. They might do a simulation of living on a Kibbutz, discuss Judaism’s views of using Steroids in sports, or have a silly-but-educational debate. Lots of fun learning going on.

So, one of the last nights I was at camp, one of the older boys’ units was doing a program on manhood. And, more specifically, on the different ways that we can all understand what it means to be “a real man,” beyond what our society usually says*. Now, these were teenage boys who were coming to the end of a session of camp (which is always an intense month of bonding), so they were incredibly willing to have this discussion – you could tell that some of them were really concerned with what it meant for them to be a man, and whether they could ever be “a real man.”

* I’ll admit that I found it wonderfully ironic that I was incredibly proud of myself because, at this program on thinking differently about manliness, I was the only one who could get the fire started properly.

It gave me a chance to share one of my favorite insights. In our culture, a “real man” is usually understood to be something like John Wayne. Tough. Strong. No nonsense. Few words; fewer words about emotions. But, the Yiddish word for “man” is “mensch,” and a “real mensch” is not a tough guy at all. That phrase always refers to a good, kind person. I think that difference says a lot about our societies and cultures, and what they value.

While the campers were discussing this difference between “a real man” and “a real mensch,” one of the boys offered an insight which struck me as pretty profound. He said, “A ‘real man’ does something because he thinks that’s what a ‘real man’ should do. A ‘real mensch’ does something because he knows that it’s the right thing to do.

Couldn’t say it any better myself.