History, Identity, and Collective Responsibility

My grandfather passed away last week, at the age of 92. He had a strong Jewish education (Yeshiva Flatbush), led our family’s Passover seders when we visited, and appreciated the pulls of identity. He married an Irish Catholic before she converted to Judaism, and celebrated both the Irish and Jewish sides of his children’s heritage. He also decided not to pursue a rabbinic education when he was chastised for speaking Hebrew (rather than Yiddish) about secular matters, and worked in U.S. customs partly because he believed firmly in the importance of global fair treatment. I collected coins as a child, and he gave me a number of proof coins from Israel, largely issued in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the state of Israel. Those coins featured imagery of menorahs and symbols tied to the biblical history of the land of Israel. History is not merely past, but is part of how we define our relationships with the present and the future. This can be pernicious, leading to jingoism and xenophobia, or beneficial, giving us a sense of responsibility and conservation of places that have been important to people for a long time.

Chaim Herzog’s Battles of the Bible attempts to revisit particular biblical battles through a combination of archaeology and more recent military history in the same geographical area to explore the influence of terrain and armaments on tactics. At times it veers nationalistic, and there’s nearly always a bit of 20/20 hindsight in military histories (e.g., “General X had a particular insight which was correct and therefore they won,” rather than “General X was superstitious/lazy and didn’t want to fight in a particular area. It happened to work out for him” or “Unknown soldier Y threw a well-aimed/lucky spear that happened to kill Unknown soldier Z who had promised his corps that he’d personally lead them to victory the night before. The morale went out of them and it started a rout”). Nevertheless, there were some excellent examples of terrain, deception, and ambush tactics to overcome deficiencies in armaments. The lesson is maybe the same as it ever has been from Sun Tzu on: know yourself, know your enemy, know the ground. It was also a sobering thought that climate change in the next 100 years may alter the topography of some of these areas as much/more than they have been in centuries, to the point where it becomes harder to study the history; one would draw very different inferences about what might have made sense if a river dries up, for example.

One tidbit was the list of nine “Preux chevaliers” from three ages hailed as exemplars of military virtue during the age of Chivalry: three biblical (Joshua, David, Judah Maccabee), three Classical (Hector, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar), and three European (Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godefroy de Bouillon, one of the leaders of the first Crusade). This identification of righteous/valorous role models throughout the ages was, in turn, part of their own efforts to connect their present behaviors to historical heroes.

Less than 100 years after Godefroy de Bouillon’s death, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, better known as Rambam/Maimonides, wrote his own work on Jewish law. Philp Cohen’s Rambam on the Torah is a brief, readable collection of commentaries on particular verses in the order that they appear in the Bible. It lacks a clear thesis, however. Maimonides’ intellectual rigor is readily apparent, and his efforts to connect philosophical consistency with the realities of life often include a sense of historicity, but I admit that I was shocked at how harshly he wrote about even studying/learning about other religions. In our efforts to become our best selves in the present and future, he clearly felt that the risk of being seduced by falsehoods outweighed any benefit of understanding that one might have derived from engaging with them. The Bible is certainly replete with warnings against intermarriage on similar grounds, that one’s children might be led astray to other religions. My Zayde would not have agreed. For him, I believe, the benefits of understanding the world (and its people) required engagement. Our values and our truth were not so fragile or unappealing, but rather could hold their own against the temptations of idolatry, and in a pluralist society, even if one believes that others are in error, we will achieve more by identifying common goals and shared values than dismissing/ignoring the approaches of others.

Coda: I have presently been “sheltered in place” for 10 days, not having left the house other than to walk the dogs. I am fortunate to have a fairly large property, allowing me to spend time among trees on a daily basis, and between work, exercise, cooking, and reading I don’t feel overly stifled. I was also pleased that my comment on an article was a “Times Pick”: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/22/opinion/coronavirus-economy.html#commentsContainer&permid=105975131:105979679

I fully admit I have beef with Tom Friedman: I grew up in Southeast Michigan, and remember when he argued that the US government should let GM and Chrysler go bankrupt- it feels particularly galling to me that he didn’t care about those jobs and the financial/human costs of those losses (he probably didn’t know too many people who worked for either automaker) when it was just money at stake, but now he’s so concerned about the well-being of the economy that he thinks it’s worth taking chances with the spread of a virus that would literally take lives.

These tradeoffs are not simple, but I believe firmly that every citizen (of the world, not just the US) has as much right to life and happiness as every other. Whether you’ve been a good person or not, whether you’re talented or not, whether you’re young or old, you have the right to live. If I have to have a smaller tv/older car so that that can happen, I’m alright with that.

Stay safe.

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