We Won’t Be Watching The Olympics

Olympic Silence.

There is one upside to the IOC’s refusal to remember the Israeli victims of terror at the 1972 Munich games is that it is more proof to anti-Semites that we do not control the world. Small comfort.

I am unsure whether I feel a moment of silence for the slain athletes would have been appropriate, or even enough. We are further removed today from the events of Munich than they were from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where the only two American Jewish Olympians were pulled from competition at the last minute. Granting a moment of silence to remember events that preceded the births of much and the audience and nearly all of the athletes will not touch hearts. We need to find a means with more meaning, and we need to be more clear about what we intend to accomplish with the memorial. Either way, we should ensure that any memorial have lasting effect.

I am no apologist for Avery Brundage, the U.S. Olympic official who supported the removal of Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman from Olympic competition in 1936, exclusion that almost surely cost them medals, possibly golds, and has been accused of bending to pressure from the Nazi government to exclude them. Ironically, Brundage was President of the International Olympic Committee during the Munich Games in 1972, and gave a moving speech during the height of the crisis:

Every civilized person recoils in horror at the barbarous criminal intrusion of terrorists into the peaceful Olympic precincts. We mourn our Israeli friends, victims of this brutal assault. The Olympic flag and the flags of all the world fly at half mast. Sadly, in this imperfect world, the greater and more important the Olympic Games become, the more they are open to commercial, political and now criminal pressure. The Games of the 20th Olympiad have been subjected to two savage attacks. We lost the Rhodesian battle against naked political blackmail. We have only the strength of a great ideal. I am sure the public will agree that we cannot allow a handful of terrorists to destroy this nucleus of international cooperation and goodwill we have in the Olympic movement. The Games must go on and we must continue our efforts to keep them clear, pure and honest and try to extend sportsmanship of the athletic field to other areas. We declare today a day of mourning and will continue all the events one day later than scheduled.

I agree with Brundage’s sentiment that we should never bend to terror. Yet we must remind a new generation of athletes and viewers and athletes to be that such an event cannot be taken for granted. Not only must the world be in a state or relative peace to even hold a games, the Olympics can only take place under an unprecedented degree of protection: 12,000 police officers, 12,200 soldiers, and 7,ooo contracted security workers on site, plus 5,500 additional soldiers on off-site Olympic security, all at a cost of $870 million. The youth of today need to understand why this is all necessary. The answer to that question does not begin with 9/11 or the London Subway Bombings. It begins with the deaths of 11 Israeli Olympians.

I want these men remembered, but I want them remembered in a way that will send every athlete, official, and spectator home thinking “I am tired of living in a world where this is all necessary, and I am going to do something positive about it.”

Sadly, we are not even having that conversation.

Please enjoy the games. We will pray for the safety and success of everyone in London.

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The Tragedy of “Mad Men”

Going through the boxes of stuff that my mom sent over to our new house, I discovered a boxed set of the first season of the AMC series Mad Men. As I am in a business that at its worst is not terribly different from advertising, I felt obliged to watch. So, I watched it, three episodes a night for four nights after the family went to bed.

Before I say anything else, I’ll admit that the producers have created some engrossing television. Now, there is really no protagonist with whom you can sympathize, as the show is basically TV noir. There are no good guys, there are no bad guys, everyone is just kind of a middlin’ jerk.

I liked it because it was a technically brilliant period piece with good dialogue (unlike another technically brilliant period piece with rather stilted dialogue, Pan Am. Oy, what hopes I had.) And as such, it offers some insight to the period some five decades after the events described. To wit:

  1. The Good Old Days weren’t so good that we should feel nostalgic for them;
  2. Moral ambiguity is nothing new, and it is not a product of capitalism, Eisenhower, the Sixties, or non-prescription hallucinogens. Even in the heart of the American Century there were lost souls;
  3. Evil is not an exterior force. It is inside each of us, and we either fight it or succumb, and the price of either choice is high. We just have to decide which course is worth fighting.

Dan Draper is to me a failed Jacob. He faces the better angels of his nature, and fights them till he wins a temporary reprieve, or a draw. In that view, watching the show is painful.

I won’t be watching season two, but not because I’m outraged by it. I’m just saddened. It’s just too hard to see a guy failing like that, show after show, knowing he’ll never beat it.

On Being a Goy

I was born into a family wherein my father had been born to Jewish parents, but my mother had not. My mother converted at a Reformed synagogue, and she believed that made her Jewish.

Fast forward sixteen years. Hot on the path toward becoming a more observant Jew, I am told by a dear (modern Orthodox) friend that I am not actually (i.e., Halachically) Jewish. Needless to say, that was upsetting, and it began a journey of 15 years wherein I wandered away from Judaism. I was brought back into the fold by a group of friends who cared less for my parentage than my beliefs, and then deeper into the fold by Chabad rabbis who understood that it was the inner spark (what the Lubavitcher Rebbe called the pintela yidI) that made a person truly Jewish.

Yet despite all of that support, I am not considered Jewish by those among my friends and mentors who are bound by Jewish law. As a result, my wife, who went through a conversion similar to my mother’s long before we met, is also not considered Halachically Jewish, nor is my son. The problem has not gone away.

So why do I react differently now than I did when I was sixteen? Apart from a few more years (and a few more pounds) under my belt, what has changed?

I think the answer is in the journey. Having spent years sampling from the tables of many faiths (the Episcopal Church, Roman Catholicism, Atheism, Agnosticism, Islam, and Buddhism among them), I kept coming back to where I found my soul, and that was in Judaism and Torah. Regardless of my status under Jewish law, I realized, I felt Jewish, thought Jewish, acted (somewhat) Jewish, and related to G-d as a Jew. Nobody, not even a beit din, had the power to give that to me, or my wife, or my son, or to take it away. What a Halachic conversion can (and, please G-d, one day will) confer upon us is the legal status of a Jew.

I my wife, and my son all live in this Halachic limbo, at best b’nei Noach, at worst goyyim, and will continue as such until our level of observance has evolved to a point where a beit din in good standing will declare us othewise.

And that’s okay. If our forefathers could wander in the Sinai for 50 years before G-d was ready to let them into the Promised Land, I suppose we must take our own journey of hardships before we reach our (spiritual) Canaan.

A Literary Giant Crosses a Line

Sad news today: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker has forbidden her publishers from translating her book into Hebrew because of her opposition to Israel.

But, as Jonathan Tobin points out in Commentary, Walker has crossed the line from being “anti-Israel” to being anti-Semitic.

It is possible to criticize Israel without being an anti-Semite. But Walker has crossed the line from an already indefensible economic war against the Jewish state to a cultural war against Jewish identity. Such boycotts will not convince Israelis to give up their country or their right to defend themselves against the ongoing efforts of Palestinians to destroy it. But they do serve as a warning that Walker and others who support her efforts have already crossed the line between the demonization of Israel and open expressions of Jew-hatred.

via Alice Walker: The Color of Anti-Semitism « Commentary Magazine.

Ms. Walker is an intelligent person, but in this case she is either horribly misinformed, or we must conclude that she is channeling her closet Jew hatred. One hopes it is the former: at least that can be addressed.

Stephen Spielberg, are you reaching out to Ms. Walker on this?

Did the Rav Drop a Bombshell?

Joseph Soloveitchik

Joseph Soloveitchik (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yoram Hazony, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, has written a provocative review of a remarkable work by Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist, and Yeshiva University professor Joseph B. Soloveitchik, best known in the Torah community as “The Rav,” in Commentary. 

Hazony suggests that the Rav, in his posthumously-published book The Emergence of Ethical Man, framed an argument that “contemporary Jewish thought is based on medieval premises that are themselves alien to Judaism.” In essence, Hazony believes that the Rav was calling into question everything written in and about Judaism since at least the Renaissance, and possibly before.

As a consequence, Judaism cannot field an alternative to European thought, for it has itself, in a sense, succumbed to European thought. Jewish thought will therefore have to go back to its roots, to the Hebrew Bible and the classical rabbinic texts, and from them derive a “new worldview” that will be different from both the neo-medieval Jewish thought of modern times and the non-Jewish philosophical schools that await a new challenge from within Judaism.

I’ve spent the past four days wondering whether I should order The Emergence of Ethical Man, hoping perhaps to come to my own accommodation with the sheer intellectual mass of Jewish thought by redlining everything written after the Rambam.  and decided a few moments before sitting down to write this that I would not. What convinced me was this post by Rabbi Gil Student at his excellent blog Hihurim Musings. Rabbi Student concludes:

As I understand R. Soloveitchik’s words, they provide no basis to suggest that he breached any theological boundaries in Emergence, certainly not any of the Rambam’s 13 Principles. He remains an innovative thinker within Orthodox Judaism as traditionally understood.

All of which makes me realize that I am intellectually outclassed. I’m going to stick with the basic texts for a while, but in the meantime I’m going to watch this discussion from the sidelines.

Quote of the Week: The Holocaust and the Failure of Humanism

The Holocaust has commonly been conceived of as a revolt against reason, the ultimate example of the “irrational,” designed and executed by the pathologically insane. But if reason was the object of the revolt, it was also the chief ally, a dialectic so monstrously rational that it could override all the traditional bounds of morality.The Holocaust was not so much the overthrow of reason as its triumph over morality. It allowed a scientific ultrarationality—what Hitler called “ice cold logic”—to provide murder with rational justification.

—William Tucker, The Science and Politics of Racial Research

via Humanity, Humanism, Holocaust – The war against the divine image in man – Universal Morality.