The death of Icarus

How foolish can the president’s wife be? Very foolish indeed, it seems, unless what recently was reported and I witnessed on TV is totally misunderstood by me. On her trip to “inspect” a recently government created detention camp for children separated from their undocumented refugee parents and would be immigrants, Melania Trump wore a jacket with the inscription on the back, “I really don’t care. Do U?” Is this a statement suggesting that she does not care what reporters write about her fashion choices, or her disregard for the plight of the detained children and their desperate parents? While I think this is probably meant for the photographers and reporters, I find the choice of the inscription unbelievably stupid.

It was an interesting coincidence that Gail and I, the other evening, watched a TV reportage about the famous Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) whose painting entitled “Landschap met de val van Icarus” or “Landscape with the fall of Icarus” addresses Melania jacket’s scribbled inscription. In a way it also addresses our president and his dedicated collaborators and followers who, in all probability, prefer to think about children’s forced separation from parents in the more Trumpian literary form of “I don’t give a damn. Do U?”

Just in case you do not know the ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, here is a brief summary.

In Greek mythology Icarus is the son of an Athenian creative genius and craftsman by name of Daedalus. The latter created the labyrinth near king Minos’ palace at Knossos to imprison the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster born of his wife and the Cretan bull. King Minos imprisoned Daedalus in the labyrinth because he gave his daughter Ariadne a ball of string in order to help Theseus, the enemy of Minos, to survive the labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur. Daedalus and his son Icarus try to escape from Crete by using artificial wings made from feathers, held together by wax. The father cautions his son of the danger of flying too low or too high. If too low, the sea’s humidity might clog the feathers; if too high, the sun might melt the wax. The two take off and Icarus the son, emboldened and giddy by their success, ignores his father’s advice. Soaring into the sky, he gets too close to the sun, loses the wings as the wax melts, falls into the sea and drowns. The area where the tragedy supposedly occurred is called the Icarian Sea near Icaria, an island southwest of Samos.

As we watched the TV program, it occurred to me that during my five year stay in Brussels, Belgium, long ago, I bought a few reproductions of Bruegel’s paintings one of which was Icarus’ fall, now hanging in our dining area. Quickly I got it from its place on the wall and reacquainted myself with its content.

While there have been many attempts to make intelligent guesses of what Bruegel meant by giving us his painted interpretation of Icarus’ fall and death, I came to the conclusion that master Bruegel, predating by roughly six centuries our own recent catastrophic events of children being ripped from their parents at our southern border by US law, carries a lesson for us all.

If this is of interest to you, use our phenomenal electronic wizardry and make Bruegel’s picture appear on your computer screen. I will try to guide you.

The scene is taken from a hilltop. In the left lower corner in the foreground a man behind a plow pulled by a horse prepares furrows for planting. This takes all his attention. In the far distance we see outlines of a city on the shore of the sea which stretches toward the horizon. Below the plowman graze a bunch of sheep. The shepherd stands with his back toward the sea as he looks into the sky as if in deep meditation. The sea holds several sail boats and two ships, one of them, the larger one, is seen in the right lower corner of the picture, as it is sailing into the harbor. Between that ship and the peremptory where the plowman works and the shepherd below gazes upwards, there is a narrow sea passage. Looking carefully into that area in the lower right of the picture, beyond a fishing fellow sitting on the shore, one can see two legs of a partially submerged drowning individual – obviously those belonging to Icarus, fallen from the sky and drowning in the sea.

No one knows what master Bruegel had in mind when he painted the picture. As I read its meaning, it suggests the sad reality that relatively few people pay attention or desire to pay attention to tragedies happening in their close purview. We close our eyes and ears so as not to hear; so as not to get involved; so as not to be drawn into the tragedy ourselves. The plowman sees nothing nor does the shepherd. The fisherman watches his line and disregards the man plummeting from the sky and drowning.

The word compassion literally means “suffering with.” Thus, having compassion means to participate and to share in the suffering person’s lot. This, in turn, means that to be compassionate means taking risks. We all know that words are cheap compared to actions which can be dangerous and costly.

The recent and ongoing crisis of children being separated from their refugee parents at our southern border and the public outcry against this practice heard throughout the land – yes, even among some of our Republican fellow citizens – and the subsequent forced backpedaling by the president who rescinded this inhuman practice demonstrates clearly that when there is the will to resist injustice perpetrated by even the highest authority in our land, things happen and the will of the people prevails.

My congratulations go the United Methodist Church for censuring their member, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for his directing I.C.E. to carry out these inhuman activities.

Let us not turn a blind eye to other human being’s suffering, and remember Hillel’s teaching, (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a):

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

Where have all the (genuine) Evangelicals gone…

One of my favorite songs during the Sixties was Pete Seeger’s “where have all the flowers gone, long time passing….?” I first heard it sung by Joan Baez and fell in love with it instantly. As an alumnus of Oberlin College’s Graduate School of Theology, it made me proud that Pete Seeger sang it first at Oberlin College, one of my alma maters. As we all know this was a protest song against our involvement in the Vietnam War.

Once again we live in a situation when our government engages in activities that are clearly immoral. The quite recent separation of children from their refugee parents at various points at our southern border is, to say it mildly, scandalous. What holier relationship is there than the relationship between parents and their children? This has been violated to the extent that several thousand children have by now been taken away from their parents and placed into fenced-in areas, detention camps, where they live like incarcerated criminals.

Yesterday, Trump, contradicting his most recent declarations about the importance of separating children of refugee parents, cynically echoed by Jeff Sessions, the US Attorney General whose behavior has now FINALLY been censured by the United Methodist Church to which he belongs, reversed himself and by executive order revoked the separation policy. When will the separated children be reunited with their parents? The government ‘s answers are vague.

The separation of children from their refugee parents at the borders is just one of many Trump government activities that are despicable and disgusting that needs to be protested against.

My question is: where are the so-called Christian evangelicals whose mandate is to speak up against immorality in the name of Jesus wherever it occurs? Where are the Jewish leaders in our country who should be speaking up against the violations of biblical values such as lying and bearing false witness?

As it happens now, most of the religious leaders in this country have been remaining silent. What comes to my ears most often is, “Well, we will just have to wait and see what happens.” If we dare to remember what happened in Europe before and during the Nazi years it is that the Jewish voices were silenced by the fences of concentration camps and the murders that took place within those fenced-in areas. And the Christian voices? Sadly enough, most of those jumped on Hitler’s bandwagon and joined in the murderous chorus of so-called German Christianity.

But not all Christian voices remained silent! And it is here that the “Barmen Declaration” needs to be read and its founders and members remembered and praised.

Representatives of the Reformed and Lutheran traditions in Germany met at Barmen in May 1934 and proclaimed a common confession of faith. The occasion for this courageous proclamation was the rise of the Third Reich and German Christianity. The declaration was born in a tense time in the midst of a struggle to maintain morality and decency in Germany. Some have called Barmen a battle cry. While the Barmen Declaration is not a detailed statement of faith, it expresses the one thing that needs to be said at a crucial time to those who claim to be evangelical Christians, “The genuine Christian must listen to Jesus Christ and to Him alone.”

Because I, as a Jew, respect both the Jew Yeshua (the Hebrew name of Jesus) and much of his teaching simply because it is to a great extent genuinely Jewish teaching once it is filtered through the net separating his genuine words from those the nascent Christian faith in a polemical spirit put into his mouth after his death, I feel very strongly that now is the time for the churches and synagogues to speak up and set the record straight. It is high time to state unequivocally that lying is wrong, racism and antisemitism to be condemned, misogyny to be made away with, name calling and insulting of others who disagree with one, to be ended. The list is too long and this is not the place to enumerate in detail the president’s shameful behavior and our present government’s despicable attitudes.

While this is a pluralistic country and many of us are not affiliated with any religion we should be able to agree that the ugly attitudes enumerated above, while to be condemned by both Christianity and Judaism, are also among the unacceptable and deplorable attitudes in the moral sphere of secular humanists and in the minds of ordinary decent people.

For lack of space, let me indicate here just one excerpt from Article 4 which makes it clear how far the genuine evangelical church of Germany went at Barmen: “We repudiate the false teaching that the church can and may, apart from its ministry, set up special leaders [Fuehrer] equipped with powers to rule.“ When one realizes that the German Christians not only remained silent during Hitler’s murderous rule but even expressed their adoration for him, the above cited text represents a slap to Hitler’s face whose title was the Fuehrer.

For the Barmen Declaration and other anti-Nazi literature circulated, for courageous sermons and truly evangelical leadership many members of the so-called Bekennende Kirche or German “Witnessing Church” paid with their lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of these heroes.

In recognition of such bravery, I can only say kol hakavod! “All due honor!”

So then, “Where have all our evangelicals gone, long time passing?” in this country and at this time?

Forcing family breakup: the new American way?

The 18th century great Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine once wrote, Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, da bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht. This translates into English as, “Whenever I think of Germany by night, I can no longer sleep.” A prophetic utterance of one who lived some 200 +years before the Holocaust took place.

I feel the same way when, during the last one and a half years, I have been considering what has been happening to my country, the United States of America. By “making America great again,” Donald Trump’s slogan prior and after his election to the presidency, the president has actually “made America great-ly” impoverished and reduced in morality, generosity and spirit, a deep concern which often deprives me of my sleep.

Just about after every lecture dealing with my experiences during the Holocaust, someone in the audience asks me which of these experiences I consider to have been the most horrific. Hard to say when the entire three years were a veritable hell. “Were you afraid of death?” – another person inquires. Every daily roll call may have sent me into the gas of Auschwitz or the shooting wall at Gross Rosen where prisoners no longer able to work were machine gunned and cremated. With our increasing dehumanization and deterioration in body and spirit, fear of death was replaced by hunger. This was an ongoing process, eventually leading to destruction of us who had become non-thinking zombies..

So was there a most terrifying moment in my life? The answer is Yes.

The date was June 29, 1942 when our family was torn apart. Driven from the ghetto into a junkyard by the SS, we were forced to hand over any valuables still in our possession. Gold necklaces, coins, wedding rings, watches, – all these were confiscated. There was intimidation by shouted threats and beatings. For a boy of fifteen that I was this was terribly scary.

But then came something even worse: separation. Women and men were separated into groups. My Mom was ripped from my Dad’s side. And I was ripped away from both my parents and my older sister. Never had I been – had I lived apart from my beloved parents who, from the day of my birth, had taken care of me, nurtured me with unending expressions of love. Words cannot express the feeling of abandonment and lostness and – yes, of fear, I experienced in that moment.

If I feel so terribly hurt to this day, even in retrospect, I cannot even imagine what my parents felt and went through on that acursed day. As my thoughts return to that utterly obscene event, I can still see my Mom weeping. with a face distorted with anguish, running behind me and calling to me, “Walti, Walti, do not leave us!” An SS soldier barring her way toward me, hit her on the head with his leather whip shouting, “Enough of that! Back to your group!” A rough shove did the rest. No longer were we together as a family. All four of us must have realized that a big question mark would from now on hang over our existence. Would we ever see each other again?

Daily, the question of illegal immigration is played out before our eyes these days. It seems that president Trump and his acolyte Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, are consumed with hatred for undocumented immigrants. For months we have been hearing unending litanies concerning the threat undocumented refugee immigration represents for our country and population.

Doctors Without Borders, the fabulous worldwide medical organization whom I admire and support, announced yesterday that new Asylum Restrictions issued by Mr. Sessions, the Attorney General and head of the Justice Department, are a death sentence for Central Americans fleeing deadly violence in their countries. Citizens of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador will from now on no longer be able to use domestic or gang violence as acceptable justification for seeking asylum in the US.

We, a country consisting entirely of immigrants, with the exception of America’s Native Nations, are closing the gates to refugees fleeing for their lives hoping to find a safe haven in our country . Having come to our southern border and seeking asylum, they will be turned away.

Since last October,700 children of parents who came here many years ago as undocumented immigrants have been forcibly separated from their parents who were deported to their country of origin and we are told that 1,500 children, thus separated under duress from their parents and sent “somewhere,” cannot be found.

I hope you see the connection between my story above and what has been happening here. Have our legislators become non-thinking and non-feeling men and women? Do they not have children? Do they not love their children? If threatened by conditions of death, would they not seek asylum in a neighboring country?

What is happening to us Americans? Can we still claim to be “the Land of the free and the home of the brave?” after this kind of sham perpetrated by our government? Have we become great under Trump or have we, thanks to him, become great-ly diminished as compassionate human beings?

Concern for our country and where we are headed under this government, keeps me awake during many a night.

Abraham in Interfaith Dialogue

A few days ago I ran into an acquaintance with whom I had a brief conversation about interfaith dialogue. In the course of our conversation he used the term “Abrahamic religions.” At other times I have also heard the phrase “the Abrahamic faiths” referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Having been involved in interfaith conversations myself, these phrase trigger in me a number of thoughts. I do not know the origin of their usage but their meaning is clear enough as they points to Judaism, Christianity and Islam being sibling religions, as it were. In Judaism, Christianity and in Islam Abraham occupies a key position and so suggests a basic commonality between them.

This commonality is generally seen as something positive in as much as it holds the potential for interfaith respect at a minimum, and a feeling of religious brother-and sisterhood at best. It suggests the possibility if not a mandate for peaceful coexistence and cooperation in our common need to confront all kinds of dangers we humans face. Sadly enough, the opposite has been taking place as the three religions oppose, denigrate and fight each other.

Contrary to many folks’ expectations, the religions that claim common origins are precisely the ones that are in tension with each other. Islam, the youngest among the three, belittles and attacks both Christianity and Judaism in the Qur’an, its holy book, as religions who tampered with the original holy texts given to them by God Allah (Sura 3:81-56). There are Qur’anic texts that warn Muslims from having social relationships with practitioners of Judaism and Christianity… The New Testament, especially in its gospel of John, is stridently anti-Jewish… Judaism, in some of its holy scriptures ridicules other ancient Near Eastern religions as examples of gross superstitions. In the Hebrew Bible there is no criticism of either Christianity or of Islam for the simple reason that neither Christianity nor Islam existed prior to the 1st cent. CE, i.e., before Christianity and later Islam came into existence. However in the post-biblical Jewish rabbinical literature we do find statements slanderous of Jesus and Christianity.

In this connection it is worth observing that no animosity exists between Judaism and say Hinduism whose respective sacred texts hold nothing in common. The same is true for Christianity and its relationship say to Confucianism. No animosity there either. So also Islam, to my knowledge, has no quarrel with Buddhism, etc. O n the other hand within Islam itself we find deadly animosity between the Shia and the Sunni movements, both of which claim Islam as their religious legacy and fight each other in the name of Allah.

Let me then restate here that it is precisely religions that claim common origins that are the ones that are in conflict with each other because their interpretations of these common origins vary from each other. The newer interpretations often segue into formation of sects and into new religions that claim to be correctives to previous expressions, take on new names and announce to the world ultimate truths only they hold. These latest revelations from divinity become ultimate authority trying to eclipse precedent expressions of faith by means of missionary teaching or worse, violent conflict.

How does the personage of Abraham relate to all this?

In Judaism, which is not a monolithic religion, Abraham is often claimed as its founder. I would rather vote for Moses and the Exodus from Egypt as the founding experience of Judaism. There are Jews who see in Abraham the founder of monotheism. He is one of the three patriarchs (with Isaac and Jacob) or eponymous ancestors of the religion. He is the role model of the person who obediently carries out God’s instructions. His obedience goes so far as being willing to sacrifice his own son Isaac to God. He lives according to God’s laws by faith before the Torah is given to Moses on Mount Sinai. He is the first to practice circumcision. It is to him and his progeny that God promises possession of what is commonly called the Holy Land. Because of Abraham’s merits, God grants to the people Israel and to its later expression, the Jewish people, his covenant or special relationship with him and so also the promised land. There are other promises too numerous to mention here.

In Christianity, which is not a monolithic religion either, Abraham is seen as the role model of human faith and obedience to God. In that sense he is the prefiguration par excellence of Jesus, the Christ. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac is proleptic of God’s subsequent willingness to give His son Jesus as a sacrifice for the redemption of humankind. And Isaac, Judaism’s second patriarch who according to the biblical text is willing to be sacrificed, foreshadows Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross for the salvation of humanity. Thus, according to Christianity (cf. the apostle Paul’s writing), the Abraham story foreshadows its actualization in Jesus Christ. Actualization is, of course, of greater value than mere prophecy! Given this Christian valuation, Christianity and the Christian people supercede and displace Judaism and Jews from their special relationship to God. The covenant with the Jews is annulled and instead, established with the Christian Church, i.e., the Christian people.

In Islam, which is not a monolithic religion either, Abraham is the believer par excellence who obeys God Allah. The term Islam means submission and Muslims are the people who in following Allah’s word in the holy book called the Qur’an (or recitation) submit to the divinity. In Muslim theology, Abraham, in Arabic Ibrahim, is the first who submits to Allah’s word and so, here also, is the role model for what it means to live in submission or surrender to God. Also, however,  Abraham, or rather Ibrahim, in Islam’s teaching is thus the first Muslim, having totally surrendered to Allah’s will. Whereas in Judaism it is Abraham’s son Isaac who was to be sacrificed, in Islam it is Abraham’s and Sarah’s older son Ishmael (in Arabic, Ismail) who was to die and so, by submitting to be sacrificed, Ishmael becomes the eponymous ancestor of Muslims. Ibrahim and Ishmael built the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, in the city of Mecca. Jerusalem is the place from where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven after his Night Journey from Mecca and thus the Dome of the Rock, from where the prophet ascended and the nearby al-Aqsa mosque are the third holiest shrines for Muslims, the second holiest site being the al-Masjid an-Nabawi (Mosque of the Prophet) in the city of Medina. Because it is Allah’s word in the Qur’an, transmitted to humanity by the prophet Muhammad, it is by virtue of these words being the latest divine revelation, that the Qur’an displaces both the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament. According to Muslim scholars, the Qur’an corrects both the Jewish and Christian Holy Scriptures where they had been tampered with and so restores the antecedent original revelations from God.

These three sets of religious affirmations, all three claiming to have issued from the God of the Hebrew Bible and the Jews, the trinitarian God of the New Testament and the Christians, and from Allah, the Qur’an’s God of Islam and the Muslims, respectively, do not agree with one another. In the minds of each of these religions’ literalist readers and practitioners, their God and their scripture calls for unquestioning acceptance and adherence. Figurative and/or metaphorical exegesis of holy book texts are not permitted. In that kind of religious fundamentalism it is “we” (believers) against “them” (unbelievers). Every reading and sermon of these divisive texts underlines and perpetuates separation and superiority, two disturbing and destructive attitudes.

Returning now to modern interfaith dialogue, it is my contention that problems of this kind, rather than to be swept under the rug, must be honestly confronted and discussed, before lasting improvement in interfaith relations can be achieved through inter-faith conversations. I do not believe that sitting around a campfire, holding hands and singing “kumbaya, my lord” will get us anywhere.

The regular reading in mosque, church, synagogue or at home of these divisive texts perpetuate misunderstanding and mutual alienation. Only the honest facing of the divisive texts, their learned study and discussion which involves historical context, perhaps even their elimination altogether or, at the least, critical annotation in Bibles, New Testaments and Qur’ans, will advance mutual respect and rapprochement. Perhaps I am asking for the impossible.

This said, I recommend the teaching of the great Rabbi Tarfon (1st to 2nd cent. CE), “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either,” (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:21).

Congratulations are due to those interfaith groups who are courageous and dedicated enough to undertake that difficult and risky task.