Values Over Outcome

One of the great conflicts in politics is between process and content. One can vigorously argue in favor of democracy, transparency, and accountability, but sometimes the result is not desired. In other words, there is a difference between advocating for your values and advocating for the outcome you want. Both Israel and America, to different extents and with different alignments, are currently struggling with this conflict.

In America, liberals are frustrated by what they see as an activist Supreme Court willing to overturn a constitutional right that has been legal precedent for 50 years. At the same time, the conservative court is increasing willing to intervene in executive branch policies not because they violate the law, but because the court believes the policies to be of such importance that a higher bar is necessary for them to stand.

Conservatives argue that the current court is merely restoring the legal principles in place before the legal revolution introduced by the liberal Warren and Burger courts of the 1960s and 1970s. Those courts, conservatives argue, found rights that didn’t exist in the constitution which allowed justices to become “super legislators”. The current judicial activism, therefore, is only a means to put a check on earlier overreach.

In Israel, it is the conservatives who are frustrated by what they see as an activist Supreme Court that has adopted for itself much greater power than was ever given to it by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Israel does not have a constitution, and for the first 40 years of its existence, the court did not have the power of judicial review; it did not declare legislation illegal. The status quo changed in 1992 with the beginning of Israel’s own legal revolution.

Since the 1990s, Israel’s Supreme Court has overturned laws and increasingly blocked government policies it deems unreasonable. Conservatives argue that judges have become “super legislators”. Liberals argue that this kind of judicial activism is sometimes necessary to preserve democracy. Minorities need legal protection against the tyranny of the majority.

Israeli conservatives have produced a package of legal reform designed to roll back the judicial revolution of the 1990s, arguing that the country cannot be a true democracy unless the duly elected government is free to implement the policies voters sent them in office to accomplish. Liberals argue that the country cannot be a true democracy unless there is an independent judiciary that can serve as a check on the government.

The result in Israel is political chaos as protests and strife threaten to tear the nation apart. In America the tension is not as visible, but certainly brewing under the surface. Amidst all the noise, it’s important to try and separate process from outcome. If we have any principles at all, we should strive for a system that ensures democracy and fairness, not just the result we want.

A very helpful article by Evelyn Gordon lays out the reasonable case for legal reform in Israel. She makes the argument that the court has overreached in its oversight of the government and that no one argued Israel was not a democracy before 1992 when the court did not have the power to strike down legislation. The conservatives in Israel truly feel that the court has overstepped its bounds and does not share their values. There could and should be more conservative voices on the court.

Neil Rogachevsky responds to Gordon not on the substance of her argument but on the troubling politics of the situation. While reform may be necessary, he argues, the timing has to do with the nature of Israel’s governing coalition. In the past, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had parties in his government to the left who could veto any judicial changes. He doesn’t have a partner like that now and is instead beholden to rightwing parties looking for maximum change while they have this golden opportunity.

What both Israel and America need are reforms that will restore faith in the justice system, and to do that we need bipartisan compromise not based on the outcomes we want but on the values we hold dear. Courts should not involve themselves in policy decisions unless they violate individual rights. At the same time, an independent judiciary is a bedrock of democracy.

To accomplish the goal of a principles-based system, you need to work with your opponents, which is exactly what Israeli President Isaac Herzog proposed. Like any compromise, its likely to satisfy and disappoint everyone. Unfortunately, the government coalition has rejected Herzog’s plan outright. Hopefully, this is only an opening position, and they will come to the table. The current crisis could be an opportunity to build a stable political future for Israel providing decades of stability, as long as the players are willing to place values over outcome.


Texas Jewboys Unite

As a Jew from Texas, I love any stories that combine the two communities in which I was raised. While many people from the major Jewish centers in America are shocked to learn that there are Jews in Texas, our people have a long and proud history there, and today there is a thriving Jewish community in the Lone Star State.

So I was eager to learn more about a restaurant in Austin called JewBoy Burgers. The establishment was opened by a member of the tribe from El Paso who wanted to mix the cultures which, like me, nurtured him from birth. He also added a third taste, that of the Texas-Mexico border, to his menu. Alas, the food is decidedly unkosher. As the owner says, speaking about the contentious name, “I don’t want to offend anybody, I don’t want to make any political statements … I’m here to make cheeseburgers.” I wouldn’t say I’m offended, but I don’t think I will be eating there on my next visit to Austin.

Speaking of the name, it may be a reference to that other great Jewish Texan, Kinky Friedman, a singer, politician, and 100% Lone Star character who sang with a band he called The Texas Jewboys, which itself may have been a reference to the great Texas Swing musician Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. I always took the name to be a coopting of a slur about Jews that Friedman may have heard growing up.

While I never experienced antisemitism as a kid in San Antonio, there certainly was a sense that Jewish culture, focused on intellectual pursuits, might sometimes conflict with macho Texas culture embodied in the myth of the Alamo. One detail from that important historical event even reinforces the stereotype.

Anyone who has ever seen an Alamo movie knows that William Travis, the commander of the Alamo, used his sword to draw a line in the sand, telling his soldiers that only those willing to die defending the garrison should cross it. This legend comes to us from one of the only survivors of the Alamo, a man named Louis Moses Rose. According to a story only told decades after the events, Rose showed up at a ranch telling the owners that he had escaped the Alamo and was the only man to refuse to cross the line.

While a Louis Rose who had been a French soldier in the Napoleonic Wars and moved to Texas certainly existed, there is no corroborating evidence for his Alamo story. There is also no proof that he was Jewish, although a number of Alsatian Jews moved to central Texas in the early and mid-19th century. Rose’s nickname was not even the result of his Jewishness but rather his long beard and the fact that he was significantly older than the other defenders.

The story of the wandering Jew, a coward who refused to fight, fits right into the stereotype so we should be skeptical of the tale, as are the authors of the wonderfully revisionist book Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. When it comes to the truth about Texas history, often the legend is more popular than the truth.

The Alamo itself is soon to undergo a major transformation as the City of San Antonio and the State of Texas create a plan to tell the story of what happened on the site in March of 1836. Will the new museum present Rose as a Jewboy, a coward, or just a smart man who knew how to get out of a hopeless situation when he could.

The Right Balance

Where does power and authority lie in the Jewish tradition? The answer to this question has varied throughout history, but fundamentally, God is the source of law and commandment. In the Biblical period, the priests were the intermediaries between human and divine. Beginning with the Mishnah and Talmud, rabbis took on that role, but in many times and places throughout Jewish history, there have been checks and counterweights to the main authority.

While we don’t normally think this way about Judaism, competing interests are an important component of the system of power within the community. The same is true for democracy, where checks and balances are a central pillar. It is not enough for a nation to hold elections because that can lead to a tyranny of the majority. A democracy must have respect for minority rights and institutions that balance each other so that no one part of the government can dominate.

Israel and the United States are currently faced with important challenges to their democratic identity. The Knesset is considering a law that would allow the government coalition to override decisions of the Supreme Court and would give the ruling prime minister a monopoly on the selection of judges to serve on the body. Hundreds of thousands have protested what they consider would be the end of an independent judiciary that is essentially the only current check on the executive/legislative branch.

In America, many are frustrated with the politicization of our Supreme Court, where it seems the justices make rulings based not on legal principles but on their preferred policy outcomes. The current court has struck down a right to an abortion with the reasoning that no such right is explicitly written in the constitution. On the other hand, the same court is likely to strike down the government’s plan to cancel student debt because of a “major questions doctrine” that requires Congress to explicitly delegate authority to the executive branch in cases of significant consequence to the politics and economy of the nation. Such a doctrine is nowhere to be found in the constitution and has no real history in American legal theory.

Frustration with a system that seems designed only to thwart the policies of the side you support seems to be endemic in both the US and Israel. In America, it has led liberals to call for reform of the Supreme Court and an increase in the number of justices. In Israel, the religious right has railed against the perceived liberal bias of the high court. Now that a right religious government is in power, it is not surprising that it is looking to reduce the power of the court.

Stable governments look to find equilibrium. When one branch asserts too much power, another will often try to rein it in. This search for statis helps prevent radicalization, and Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute in Israel has shown this week that checks and balances have always been a part of the Jewish tradition. In Biblical times, the king was always kept in line by the prophet. In the Talmud and later medieval times, majority rule by a community was balanced by the authority of the rabbi. In Babylonia, the exilarch (secular ruler of the community) shared power with the geonim (the rabbinical heads of academies).

One could extend Rabbi Golinkin’s argument into the modern period as well. Within the contemporary synagogue, the rabbi and the board of trustees must work together, and each has its own authority. Within the Conservative movement, different institutions balance each other out: the rabbinical seminaries, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the Rabbinical Assembly. Each group has its own power base and leads in different ways.

For Israel and the US to remain vital democracies, they must find a way to balance the political forces in each. Courts serve as an important place to protect the rights of minorities, but they can also overreach and suppress the will of the people. Finding the right balance is tricky, but without it we are faced with either chaos or authoritarianism. Let’s hope both countries find a middle path.

Good Book

Why do we read the Torah the way we do? By that I mean, why is it that we read each week from a parchment scroll that contains only the consonants of the text, and why do we do so by chanting the words in a particular melody? In this system we have two traditions, a written and an oral. I’m not referring to here to the written and oral Torah, per se, although they are analogous. The phrase “written Torah” refers to the content of the Torah while the “oral Torah” refers to rabbinic literature in general and the Talmud in particular. We understand that this latter tradition was originally passed down orally from generation to generation until it too was committed to writing. 

In the case of the reading from the Torah scroll, we have the written text alongside a system of vocalization. This reading tradition seems also to have been passed down orally, like rabbinic literature, and was also eventually written down by a group of scribes called the masoretes, named after the Hebrew word for tradition. The masoretes recorded the oral reading tradition by placing the now familiar vowels to indicate how a word should be vocalized and the trope marks to show how a sentence should be parsed. 

The texts created by the masoretes were critical to ensuring a uniform understanding of the Biblical text. These vocalized and punctuated Bibles were cherished by their communities and used by them to make sure they had the proper text of the Torah and were reading it correctly. 

In modern times, the books that have come down to us, particularly the Leningrad Codex and the Aleppo Codex, have been used by scholars to create critical editions of the Bible. In general, the process involves taking the oldest complete single version of a text and then adding notes with variant readings at the bottom. For example, the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, the critical edition of the Bible, is based on the Leningrad Codex, the oldest complete Masoretic Text. The Jewish Publication Society Bible and the Conservative movement’s Etz Hayim Humash used in our synagogues is also based on this text. 

The Leningrad and Aleppo Codices are so highly regarded in part because they are held in public institutions where scholars have access to them. But there is another text which carbon dating has shown to be older than both and is nearly complete, called Codex Sassoon. Unlike the other two, it has been in private hands for nearly a century and is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s this spring. It is estimated to fetch $30 – $50 million and may break the record for most expensive book ever sold, currently held by the $43.2 million paid for a copy of the U.S. Constitution. 

Whatever the ultimate price, I do hope the codex ends up at a library or scholarly institution so that it can be studied. Unfortunately, we have precious few Hebrew manuscripts from the six hundred years before Codex Sassoon was written. Perhaps the book will help scholars unlock some secrets about Jewish history from the time period. A book that was the prized possession of a local Jewish community in the 13th century should be available to the global Jewish community in the 21st. 

Boundary Issues

When I studied in Israel, our instructor in practical Jewish law had a rather quirky approach to the subject. In general, he held that the Talmud was authoritative and that any rabbinical codes, commentary, and responsa that followed could not be relied upon. As a result, even a figure of such stature as Maimonides would not be a source for deciding a question of Jewish law.

One day we were discussing the subject of eruv, a boundary around different domains that allows people to carry objects on Shabbat. There is a whole tractate of Talmud on the subject, but for complex reasons, our instructor would not accept the eruv in Jerusalem. The practical implication was that he could go to synagogue on Shabbat but would not bring anything with him. In addition, since he had small children, he would not be able to carry them or push them in a stroller. We all wondered how he got along with his wife as he left her all alone with the kids each Saturday as he went off for services.

The prohibition against carrying on Shabbat is one of the least understandable commandments for modern, liberal Jews. They understand that Shabbat is supposed to be a day off from work, but how does carrying a pair of keys fall into that definition? In fact, carrying (along with making fires) has a more direct basis in the Torah that any other prohibition on Shabbat.

In Exodus 16:29, God commands the Israelites: “everyone remain in place: let no one leave the vicinity on the seventh day.” This instruction comes in the context of the manna. The Israelites collect it every day in the desert except on Saturday. Instead, on Friday they got a double portion to tide them over. Staying at home means not collecting and carrying things in the public domain. According to the Torah, one should stay home, not use fire and cease from work on the Sabbath. Only later did the rabbis define 39 categories of work since the Torah itself leaves the question vague, but leaving one’s domain and, by extension, carrying objects is explicitly forbidden.

While staying at home may have been the Biblical practice of Shabbat, the Jewish community evolved in the post-Temple world. People would go to services at synagogue and visit with friends who might be at some distance. To accommodate these actions, the rabbis of the Talmud established the eruv as a way around the original prohibition. If different domains could be joined together by walls or other structures, people would be able to move between them and carry objects.

Today an eruv is created with string or translucent fishing wire attached high up on poles. Various communities, including Lawrenceville, have eruvin which allow people to carry on Shabbat. This past October, Brooklyn finally received a unified eruv throughout much of the borough. Before that time, there were multiple smaller eruvin in different neighborhoods that left gaps in coverage and didn’t allow for carrying between the boundaries. Now more people, especially families with young children and the disabled, can enjoy the full experience of a modern Shabbat.

The eruv is still a controversial subject. There are those, like my instructor from Israel, who find them to be problematic. Other authorities question the eruvin created by other communities. One Satmar rebbe has told his followers to not make use of the new eruv and therefore refrain from taking anything out of the home on Shabbat.

In addition, the politics of the eruv has prevented some localities from growing their Jewish communities. Because observant Jews highly value an eruv for their neighborhood, some cities and towns have prevented their construction as a way of limiting the number of Orthodox Jews in their boundaries. Unfortunately, sometimes secular Jews have been the leaders of these eruv opposition movements.

While most Conservative Jews pay little attention to whether there is an eruv in a neighborhood, this concept actually represents our movement’s approach to Jewish tradition. We believe in the authority of Jewish law, but we also believe that it has and continues to evolve as our community encounters new realities. The ancient rabbis knew that for Shabbat to survive, they needed to find a way for us to carry outside the home. As we confront an ever-changing world, the same open attitude will help us save Shabbat for the next generation.

Geological Connection

The earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria this week has killed over 20,000 people as of this writing. The devastation and loss of life is astounding and heartbreaking. Families and communities will be in mourning for a long time as the region struggles to rebuild.

The lone bright spot in the tragedy is the opportunity for neighbors to lend assistance. Israel, which has tense relations with Turkey and no official relations with Syria, has send aid which is desperately needed. But there is another connection in the earthquake that unites the countries – geology.

Scientists will need time to analyze the quake, but it appears to have occurred at the intersection of three tectonic plates. One of the fault lines in that location is the Dead Sea Transform, which extends down through Syria and Lebanon and forms the border between Israel and Jordan. This geographical feature created the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, and the Jordan Valley.

These iconic elements of Israel’s geography are the result of the meeting of the African and Arabian plates. The land of Israel has always been the crossroads of civilization, where empires like the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Roman met each other. It is also a tectonic crossroads where parts of the earth rub against one another.

Many earthquakes in history along the Dead Sea Transform have devastated the area. In 363 CE the Jewish community was attempting to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem under the patronage of the Roman Emperor Julian who had rejected the Christianity of his predecessors and embraced paganism. Some believe that a massive quake that year caused fires to erupt from the Temple foundation, which ultimately thwarted their efforts.

In 749 a large earthquake destroyed many cities in the land of Israel, including Beit Shean. Today you can visit the site and see the incredible ruins, including columns lined up the ground along the main street, still laying the way they fell the day of the destruction. Historians have used Jewish liturgical poetry that mentions a “seventh” earthquake to try and date the event. Some believe the phrase means a quake that occurred in the seventh (sabbatical) year of the agricultural cycle, while others speculate that it was the seventh event in a series of disasters.

While Israel has always been regarded as the holy land and God’s country, it is not a place of tranquility. Unlike Egypt and Mesopotamia, which were fed by their great rivers, Israel is dependent on rain, and so it has been subject to droughts from time immemorial. It has also seen the ruin of earthquakes, which is why in the Service of the High Priest recited on Yom Kippur we read: “And for the people of Sharon (the part of Israel subject to earthquakes), [the High Priest] would pray: May it be Your will, Adonoy, our God, and God of our fathers, that their homes shall not become their graves.” For too many this week, their homes indeed became their graves. May God bring the survivors relief and comfort to those who mourn.

Accidents Happen

We often say “accidents happen” as a way of avoiding blame. If we went about life worrying about every broken glass or fender bender, the anxiety would be overwhelming. There is a certain relief that comes from the notion that we cannot completely control what happens in the world. But what about accidents that result in serious injury or even death? In those cases, we are less liable to simply respond with a dismissive “oh well”. Someone must be to blame.

In October 2021, the actor Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed the cinematographer of the movie he was filming. The director was also injured. The shocking incident led to an investigation and ultimately a decision two weeks ago that Baldwin will be charged for manslaughter in the killing.

The shooting was not intentional so the case will ultimately come down to a question of Baldwin’s state of mind. Did he know that the gun he was using in the scene might have been loaded? Was he aware that safety precautions had not been properly followed? If he knew the situation was unsafe but proceeded to act anyway, he might be found guilty of negligence.

On a large and complex movie set, there are lots of crew with many different responsibilities. There are also lots of opportunities for injury, whether from pyrotechnic special effects, heavy equipment and vehicles, or weapons used as props. The first concern should always be safety, and it appears that on this set, proper precautions were not taken. Some of the crew had quit the previous day. The first assistant director has already pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and the armorer, the crew member assigned to ensure the safety of weapons, will also face manslaughter charges.

Other actors are concerned that the case against Baldwin will put extra pressure on them to guarantee the safety of the guns they use on set even though they are not properly trained. Should it really be an actor’s job to inspect the weapon before they handle it? Maybe. In a situation where someone’s life is on the line, it may be insufficient to rely on the competency of others.

The Forward noted that Judaism has much to say on manslaughter. In the Torah, such cases result in the perpetrator having to flee to cities of refuge. As long as the one who committed the act of manslaughter stays in such a city, he or she cannot be harmed by the family of the victim who may want revenge. In some ways, the city of refuge is a precursor to our prison system.

In ancient Israel, murder was punished with execution. Lesser crimes might result in lashes or monetary payment. Manslaughter, however, is an intermediate case. Because there was no intent to harm, capital punishment would be excessive, but corporal punishment or fines don’t seem sufficient. The victim’s family would likely want a harsher consequence. In the city of refuge, the perpetrator would lose freedom and must leave their home, but they would be protected from retaliation, which is similar to the function of the modern prison.

Already in Talmudic times the cities of refuge system was a relic of the past, if it ever actually existed at all. The ancient rabbis assumed a centralized system of law and order where the state handles justice, not the victim’s family. And yet, even today survivors are included in the sentencing phase of the criminal justice system, and they can also sue for civil damages. Accidents do happen, but human beings must also be held accountable for their actions. We all have a duty to do our best to protect life.

Accommodations vs. Rights

Ask any observant adult Jew what calendar year is the best and they will tell you: any year (such as 2023) where the first day of Rosh Hashanah is a Saturday. Why? Because in that case, they will only have to miss one day, Yom Kippur, during the Hebrew month of Tishrei, and thereby avoid missing 6 days of work in a 23 day period. They don’t even need to leave early on Erev Yom Kippur since it falls on a Sunday.

There is an inverse corollary to this principle, which is that the best year for a non-Jewish employee at a Jewish institution is one in which the Tishrei holidays fall on weekdays (such as 2022). They can get a whopping 7 workdays off in that same timeframe without having to take any vacation.

Observant Jews who work in the secular world are faced with the challenge of making sure they can fulfill both their religious and job duties. One problem is having to take up to 9 days of vacation or personal time just for Jewish holidays. Sometimes employers only offer 10 days total of vacation. Another dilemma is what to do on Fridays. In the summer, there isn’t an issue, but in the winter when Shabbat begins as early as 4:15 PM in some places, it is impossible to stay at ones desk until the traditional quitting time.

To resolve these conflicts, many observant employees learn how to ask for accommodations. They commit to coming in early each week to make up for missed Shabbat time. They offer to work during Christmas and New Year’s when non-Jewish employees look to take off. While some are successful in these strategies, the law in the United States does not generally require employers to grant religious accommodations.

The Supreme Court has ruled that employers can prevent their workers from observing their religion unless allowing them to do so would cost the employer only the bare minimum. This low standard has disproportionally hurt minority groups like Jews. Christians don’t have to worry about taking off time for Christmas and Easter. The first is always a federal holiday and the second always falls on Sunday.

A new case before the court could change the way observant Jews seek accommodations. A postal worker sued for the right to not have to work on Sundays, his Sabbath. If he wins, Jews will now have the right to take off time for their religious observances as well, rather than bargain for it. Such a change is likely to be supported by liberals due to the fact that it will be a civil liberties win for minority groups.

Conservatives would also celebrate such a decision because of the potential consequences for the culture war. Under such a ruling, a pharmacist might be able to opt out of filling a contraception prescription. A police officer might not be required to help protect an abortion clinic. A waiter could deny service to LGBTQ customers. For many on the right, religious liberty means being able to discriminate against others.

We will have to see how the court comes up with its rules if it decides in favor of the postal worker. In allowing religious minorities to observe their customs which harm no one else, will it also protect third parties from the discriminatory practices of other faiths? The history of this court, which has already pushed the limits of freedom of religion, suggests that the answer is no. While finally having the right to not work on Shabbat and holidays would undoubtedly be a great win for American Jews, will it be worth it if other oppressed people see their status diminished? We can only hope that common sense, and common decency, prevail.

Our Heritage

Who owns our cultural heritage? Is it the person who created a particular work of art or the person who bought it? What if the artist is no longer alive? What if the piece is considered an essential part of the place it originated? Is it then owned by the nation? What if the piece is considered an essential part of human civilization? Does it then belong to all of us?

These are tricky questions. A year ago, the Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, one of the founders of Birthright Israel, avoided prosecution for antiquities trafficking by agreeing to surrender $70 million worth of artifacts and promising to stay out of the market permanently. For years he had collected precious items that had been looted from various countries, mostly in the Mediterranean basin, including Israel. He maintains that he didn’t know the antiquities had been stolen and that he had been deceived by disreputable dealers.

The US government then set about returning these pieces of cultural heritage to their rightful owners, the governments of the countries where they were found. In the case of Israel, this task was complicated by politics. The Palestinian Authority believes that items found in its territory should go to it, while Israel maintains that it has control over some parts of the West Bank and therefore it should take possession of those pieces found there.

A few weeks ago, the US repatriated a cosmetic spoon from Steinhardt’s collection to the Palestinian Authority. It is unclear whether more artifacts will go to the PA or Israel, but the challenge of finding the equitable custodian for our cultural heritage is significant. The Palestinians believe that 8,000-year-old stone masks from the collection, found near Jerusalem and displayed in the Israel Museum, should be returned to them. The masks were created by the founders of Western civilization and are the common heritage of both Palestinians and Israelis.

These kinds of battles rage on an even grander scale with the case of the Elgin Marbles, carved friezes from the Parthenon in Athens that have been in the British Museum for over 200 years. It was announced this week that British and Greek negotiators are nearing an agreement that would return at least some of the marbles to the Acropolis Museum. The details of the case are complex, but Greece argues that these priceless artifacts should be displayed in the context of the location where they were created. The British Museum argues that they are best integrated into an exhibit that shows their importance in the context of the development of world civilization.

The subtext of these arguments is not hard to see. The British Museum is only able to make the case for world heritage because its former empire stretched across the globe, allowing the institution to collect items from different cultures. Who designated the museum as the caretaker of human civilization? The answer, of course, is no one. The collection is the result of imperialism with all its attendant violence and exploitation.

The British Museum is so reluctant to return the Elgin Marbles because they know the claims will not end there. Other nations will demand repatriation of their items as well, and after a while the museum may find itself more closely aligned with its name – housing a collection of artifacts from the British Isles only. After all, the institution argues that the statues were acquired legally by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s. Returning them would set a precedent that any nation can demand the return of its heritage, no matter how it was acquired.

But the case of the Elgin Marbles is not so simple. Many, including Lord Byron and others back in the early 19th century, believe that the British diplomat was at the very least unethical in cutting the friezes off the Parthenon and shipping them back to Britain. A case of Jewish-owned art from the 1930s demonstrates that even when a piece is bought legally, an injustice can occur. The family of a banker who was forced to sell a Van Gogh painting because of Nazi persecution is suing the current Japanese owner. The sale in 1934 may have been legal, but it was the result of the owner being crippled financially due to German antisemitic policy.

Imperialism moves in cycles. The ancient Greeks themselves established political and cultural domination of much of the world, no doubt acquiring the art of other peoples for themselves. Thousands of years later the British took Greek art from the Ottoman Empire which was ruling Athens at the time. Only a hundred years later, the Ottomans Turks brought important archeological finds like the Gezer Calendar, one of the most important early Hebrew inscriptions, back to Istanbul where it resides today. Will Israel demand that these precious artifacts be returned? Will the Palestinian Authority claim them as well? While these pieces belong to all of humanity, they have to live somewhere.

Imitation of Life

Life imitates art, the old saw goes. Writers and other creators draw on their experiences or events they find in the world, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to find fiction eerily similar to real life. Art has always imitated life; that is why we find it so compelling. 

I just finished watching the television show The Offer, which tells the story of the making of the epic film The Godfather. While critics and some of the real-life players in the story have disputed the accuracy of the depiction, many of the stories it portrays are well known behind the scenes anecdotes about the classic movie. The show takes great pains to draw a connection between the making of The Godfather and The Godfather itself. 

It all gets very meta. Here is a show about how the mafia interferes with the making of a mafia movie in which the mafia interferes with the making of a movie (In The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone tells his godson not to worry, that a Hollywood producer will put him in a movie after receiving “an offer he can’t refuse”). The characters in The Offer even slip lines from the movie into their conversations, like when a studio executive says, “It’s just business; it’s not personal.” 

What’s interesting about The Offer is that in seeing how The Godfather was made, we gain a deeper understanding of its seminal impact on our culture. Before the movie, gangster films were somewhat unrealistic, but Francis Ford Coppola, the director, turned mafiosos into relatable human beings with families and internal conflicts. And we the audience, by identifying with these characters, have adopted their mannerisms and phrases into our everyday lives. 

This week there was another example of life imitating art when a production of the play Indecent at a Florida high school was canceled almost exactly 100 years to the day after the original play it as based on was banned. The 1923 play, God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, featured the first depiction of a lesbian romance on Broadway. While so much has changed for the LGBTQ community in the century between the two productions, fear and prejudice remain. 

I saw Indecent on its last day on Broadway. It’s a powerful and unique exploration of Yiddish theater, the Holocaust, and the way that ideas can be both liberating and dangerous. It also happens to have been co-produced by Dana Lerner, who grew up at Adath Israel.  

In response to the Florida school board’s decision to cancel the high school production of Indecent, the playwright, Paula Vogel, showed support for the student actors on social media and plans to visit the community and present the play to them. Her proposal reminded me of another play, The Prom, in which Broadway actors go to a small conservative town to defend a lesbian high school student who has been banned from her prom. 

The Prom also has an Adath connection as it was produced by Jane Dubin, sister of our member Scott Dubin. A group from the synagogue attended that play, which took a satirical and comic look at the ways in which different cultural groups in America stereotype each other. The Broadway people think they can fix the small-town folk but end up learning their own lessons.  

I don’t know if Vogel is familiar with The Prom, but I hope she does not make the same mistake of presuming she knows better. No one wants to be lectured to. If life imitates art, we would do best to learn from fiction. Maybe that is the most effective way to avoid the fate of that other old saw, “those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”