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?

Musings about the notion of justice.

I arrived in the USA legally on a student visa in 1948, later to be changed into an immigration visa thanks to the intervention of Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, because I was a refugee from communism. This explains why I am very interested in the fate of the so-called dreamers, their fate to be decided by the government sometimes this month. Only a couple of weeks ago the daily news dealt with DACA or “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” established by the Obama administration in June 2012 but to be phased out by the Trump administration beginning in 2017 and so jeopardizing these young people to be deported to their native countries they do not know, having been brought up in the US. Hot button issues succeed each other so quickly these days that one has hardly time to reflect about and digest them. The DACA issue in which the fate of 800,000 young peoples’ future is to be decided – no small matter for innocent women and men who were brought into this country as infants by their illegally immigrated parents and now risk deportation – was suddenly displaced from due public consideration by Trump’s acceptance to visit North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and shortly afterwards, by the ousting of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as the resignation of a number of government officials. So what is it with the DACA young people?

While I am in no position to discuss the legalise involved, I want here to briefly discuss in a general way the concept of justice and what it means to be a law abiding citizen.

As in my previous piece, I am returning to my experience in Nazi Germany. The post-World War One German Weimar Republic was a democratic state in every sense of the term. Following the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship of the Third Reich, democracy quickly disappeared and gave way to nazism, a type of fascism. How was this rapid transformation accomplished? By a new system of justice and thus new legislation that annulled the previous laws.

The question that must be asked is what does the word “justice” mean? Can the concept be so flexible so as to change practically over night, as it did in Germany? While various dictionaries define the term “justice” differently, they agree on one fundamental meaning, namely, “determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity,” or “the quality of conforming to law.”

These definitions immediately raise the question as to who it is that establishes the law according to which the citizenship is to behave. In the case of Nazism it so happened that both the legislators and judges of the Weimar Republic were eliminated and those who followed Hitler’s racist ideology installed instead.

It was this radical change that facilitated the transformation of the Democratic Weimar Republic into the racist police state under Adolf Hitler.

The filling of vacant US judgeships is taking place right now at an unprecedented pace under Donald Trump’s presidency, orchestrated by the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

What might be the reason for such haste?