Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Torch Of Remembrance

Historical Memory

“Jews survived all the defeats, expulsions, persecutions and pogroms, the centuries in which they were regarded as a pariah people, even the Holocaust itself, because they never gave up the faith that one day they would be free to live as Jews without fear.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Memorial Flame:
In A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson writes: “Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”
Photo Credit: Perry J. Greenbaum, 2014. 

Here is the Memorial Flame lit up at the Holocaust Memorial at Toronto's Earl Bales Park, which my wife and I visited on Sunday. This metal structure, rising high, forms the focal point to the memorial of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, which also includes the Wall of Remembrance. The memorial flame was unveiled in 1991; and the wall 10 years later, in 2001.

We remember so as to not forget, a fitting idea and ideal central to the round of holidays and festivals that the Jewish People are currently observing.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Are You Compassionate?

 Human Understanding

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Albert Einstein,
Letter of 1950, as quoted in The New York Times (29 March 1972) 
and The New York Post (28 November 1972)

“Compassion is the basis of morality.”
―Arthur Schopenhauer,
On the Basis of Morality (1840)

One of the meanings of compassion is to "suffer with" a fellow human being with the desire to alleviate the suffering that he or she is currently undergoing. It can equally apply, I am sure, to other non-human sentient beings suffering and the desires of such animals to relieve their pain. That is, compassion is not limited to human-human interactions; it crosses all kinds of humanly and scientifically defined boundaries.

This is heart-warming, but also problematic. Here's why. Compassion is one of those words that is often invoked, certainly by religions and philosophies, but it is hard to put in practice in real life. It involves a dedication to an ideal that few understand intellectually, let alone have the ability to put into practice in a concrete physical way.

It almost appears as if compassion stands so much apart from humanity, so above it, that it requires some supernatural force to invoke, to bring it into being as a force of love. Yet, it is human, and it takes a desire, a decision, a will, if you will, to act compassionately. Personal suffering is often the catalyst. It involves a human turning from egoism to altruism, not easy to do since it involves not the negating of self, but the opposite: having a highly developed self-awareness. In such individuals, the desire to give is done by well-rounded and thoughtful individuals who sense a deep connection to others. This is no wishy-washy thing.

Even so, if you randomly ask most individuals if they are compassionate, few would admit they are not. It has been my experience that compassion is desired by everyone, but few have it in great measure. In my view, it is such a rare human characteristic that when one encounters it in undiluted form, the result is an instantaneous bringing of tears.

Such are my musings; here is what Wikipedia, the compiled wisdom of the Internet, a database of human thought, says on the matter:
Compassion is the emotion that one feels in response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help.[1][2]

Compassion is often regarded as having an emotional aspect to it, though when based on cerebral notions such as fairness, justice and interdependence, it may be considered rational in nature and its application understood as an activity based on sound judgment. There is also an aspect of compassion which regards a quantitative dimension, such that individual's compassion is often given a property of "depth," "vigour," or "passion." The etymology of "compassion" is Latin, meaning "co-suffering." More involved than simple empathy, compassion commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another's suffering.[2]
It is my view that compassion can have a cathartic effect on humans. This is worth thinking about and acting on.

Friday, September 19, 2014

One-Year Cancer Free

Anniversary & Celebrations

Today marks an anniversary: one-year cancer free. I am thankful. I think a celebration is in order, so next week, my family and I plan on having a nice meal together to mark the happy occasion. Thank you to everyone who was there and supported me, notably my wife, in various ways, during my time battling this horrible disease.

For anyone who wants to read a personal account of an individual making sense of and dealing with cancer, you can read my blog posts here. The writer in me has a need to write, make sense of what is taking place within me; how successful I have been in this endeavor is for you, the reader, to judge. Cancer, like many diseases, affects the mind as much as it affects the body. There is a wholeness to us that becomes more evident, more known, when parts of that whole are under attack. So, perhaps, at the suggestion of an old friend, I might turn it to a short book. One day. Perhaps.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah. כתיבה וחתימה טובה (Ketivah VeChatimah Tovah).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Seventh Month

A New Year

"Rabbi Eliezer says: The world was created in Tishrei . . .
Rabbi Joshua says: The world was created in Nissan."
Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 10b–11a

The Jewish New Year is, as has been the case in modern times, is on the first of Tishrei, which corresponds this year on the civil (Gregorian) calendar to September 24th after sundown—all Jewish holidays begin after the sun sets. Yet, the new year for the Jewish people worldwide begins on the seventh month, and not on the first. There have been all kinds of interesting rabbinical explanations for this apparent inconsistency or contradiction, what we do know, however, is that at about the time the Jewish sages were compiling the Mishnah, Rosh HaShanah become the Jewish new year. "The first of Tishrei is the beginning of the year [rosh hashanah] for years, sabbatical cycles, and the jubilee," it says in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1. In this essay, Prof. George Jochnowitz provides some interesting and noteworthy historical insights on the holiday that today even the most secular or non-observant Jews worldwide celebrate with much anticipation, gladness and joy. L'Shanah Tovah Tikatevu.

by George Jochnowitz

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you are to have a holy convocation; do not do any kind of ordinary work; it is a day of blowing the shofar for you” (Numbers 29:1). Those are the words in the Torah that tell us to observe Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. Something is missing from that verse, since there is nothing about a new year. Besides, does a year start on the first day of the seventh month? Apparently it does.

Passover begins in the month of Nissan, but according to the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim) it begins in the month of Aviv. Aviv is Hebrew for “spring,” and it occurs in the name of the city Tel Aviv (hill of spring). Nissan is the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar nowadays, if we count the months beginning with Rosh HaShanah. But if Rosh HaShanah takes place in the seventh month, then Aviv—now called Nissan—is the first month.

The Bet Alfa synagogue in Israel was built in the sixth century of the Common Era. One of its mosaics has a circular panel with the signs of the Zodiac. There are zodiac representations in synagogues all over the world, including the Eldridge Street Synagogue, now a museum, in New York City. I once went to a synagogue in Tel Aviv and saw the Zodiac symbols there. I asked a congregant, who told me they represented the twelve tribes. Since there are twelve months and twelve tribes, turning the symbols from Zodiac signs into representations of the tribes is a way to reconcile the symbols with Jewish tradition.

The Zodiac was part of the Babylonian calendar, and so Jewish traditions involving these symbols may have been borrowed during the Babylonian exile. However, the Babylonian year began with the month of Nissan.

The language spoken on the island of Sardinia is usually considered a separate language and not a dialect of Italian. The name of the month of September in Sardinian is caputannicaput means “head” and anni means “of the year.” Thus, caputanni is a perfect, direct translation of Rosh HaShanah, “head of the year.” There is a possibility that the name reflects a pre-Roman calendar that began the year with September. It is also possible, and probably more likely, that the name goes back to the year 19 C.E., when the Jews were expelled from Rome, and 4,000 young Jews were condemned to force labor on Sardinia.

Twelve years later, the order was rescinded, and so Jews had the choice of going back to Rome or remaining where they were. A Jewish population remained in Sardinian until 1492, when the island belonged to Spain and Jews were expelled. There is a second word in Sardinian that appears to be of Jewish origin, cenabura, pronounced [kenabura], meaning “Friday,” and coming from cena (feast) and pura (pure), suggesting the Sabbath meal. These words remained in Sardinian after the expulsion of the Jews.

And then there’s September, from Latin septem meaning “seven,” with what is probably an adjectival suffix –ber. September, October, November and December mean 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th. Yet they are the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th months of the year. In the days before the Roman Republic existed, however, there were 51 winter days that were not part of any month. Around the year 713 B.C.E., King Numa Pompilius introduced two months into the winter season, Januarius and Februarius, and designated them as the first two months of the year. Julius Caesar renamed the fifth month, Quintilis, after himself, calling it Julius (July in English). Augustus Caesar named the sixth month, Sextilis, after himself, calling it Augustus (August in English).

And so the Jewish calendar begins with a month originally called the seventh, which occurs in September, a name meaning “seventh.”

Shana tova!

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at george@jochnowitz.net.

Copyright ©2014. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. It is republished here with the author's permission.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Eichmann Was As Evil As The System He Followed

Being Evil

In a book review article in The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler, writes about Bettina Stangneth's Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, which shows that Otto Adolf Eichmann was not a man merely caught up in the bureaucracy and machinery of evil, but a man who passionately and enthusiastically believed in what he did. There is no evidence to support the the argument of "banality of evil," as Hannah Arendt put it more than 50 years ago, but, rather, shows a man committed to an evil cause.

In citing Stangneth's book and after conducting an interview with the author, Schuessler writes about the extent of Eichmann's commitment to amorality and mass murder:
Then, while reading through the voluminous memoirs and other testimony Eichmann produced while in hiding in Argentina after the war, Ms. Stangneth came across a long note he wrote, dismissing the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, that flew in the face of Arendt’s notion of Eichmann’s “inability to think.”

“I sat at my desk for three days, thinking about it,” Ms. Stangneth said in a telephone interview from her home. “I was totally shocked. I could not believe this man was able to write something like this.”

Ms. Stangneth’s book cites that document and a mountain of others to offer what some scholars say is the most definitive case yet that Eichmann, who was hanged in 1962, wasn’t the order-following functionary he claimed to be at his trial, but a fanatically dedicated National Socialist. If previous researchers have seriously dented Arendt’s case, Ms. Stangneth “shatters” it, said Deborah E. Lipstadt, a historian at Emory University and the author of a 2011 book about the Eichmann trial.

The facts about Eichmann in Argentina have been dribbling out, “but she really puts flesh on the bones,” Dr. Lipstadt said. “This was not a guy who just happened to do a dirty job, but someone who played a crucial role and did it with wholehearted commitment.”

While Ms. Stangneth maintains that Arendt, who died in 1975, was fooled by Eichmann’s performance on the stand, she sees her less as a foil than as an indispensable intellectual companion.
That Arendt was wrong about Eichmann does not mean she was wrong about everything. It only shows that even the most intelligent and thoughtful individuals, as humans with all attendant faults, can have certain ideas of the mind, informed and shaped by their experiences and sympathies, that can lead any of us astray. That Eichmann was guilty, as the 1961 trial in Israel found him to be, is no surprise; what might surprise some is that Eichmann was the evil unfeeling "monster" that documentary evidence proves he always was.

For more, go to [NYT].

Friday, September 5, 2014

Bringing Light Into A 'Hall Of Perfect Darkness'

Political Theatre

Shabbat Candle Lighting
Credit: Lubavitch

The United Nations started off with good intentions, replacing the League of Nations, which failed for similar reasons that the U.N. now uncomfortably finds itself in, namely, an inability to abide by its charter and mandate.  The U.N., however, was founded on good principles; one of the chief architects of the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is Ralphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, a lawyer, who emigrated to New York City in 1941. He is credited for coming up with the term "genocide."

But this assembly has other interests, and disregards, ignores if you will, its human rights charter and its founding mandate at the expense of truth and justice. As a case in point, this institution spends an inordinate amount of time finding fault and condemning one tiny state—Israel—while ignoring the many violations of human rights and war crimes from the many other states.

If any other nation, including my own of Canada, would be as scrutinized and put under the lens of opprobrium and mock moral outrage that Israel has been for decades, it would conclude, as Israel has, that the U.N. is not only unfair but a perverse body—not a place where truth or justice will ever be found. In short, the U.N. is a bully, but a weak one.

I came across this article (Chabad.org)  recently, which is a speech that Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave at the 92nd Steet Y in New York City on September 24, 2009; it describes an event twenty-five years earlier, when Netanyahu was the ambassador to Israel and his encounter with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, during the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah in 1984 

Netanyahu says in "Truth vs. Darkness in the United Nations":
Then something happened that I will never forget to the end of my life. The Rebbe and his brother-in-law, I think they were both approaching eighty at the time, each took a Sefer Torah, a Torah scroll. They went to the center of the hall, surrounded by all the chassidim.
There was a light shining from the ceiling that bathed them in a pool of light.

I saw these two old bearded Jews dancing in a circle of light with a Torah. I felt the strength of generations, the power of our traditions, our faith and our people.

The Rabbi said many things to me that night. But he said one big thing.

He said, "You will go into a house of lies," that's how he referred to a particular institution.

He said, "Remember that in a hall of perfect darkness, if you light one small candle, its precious light will be seen from afar, by everyone. Your mission is to light a candle for truth and for the Jewish people."

That is what I have tried to do ever since.

This is what we are all asked to do.
Amen and amen.

Darkness covers; light reveals, and even a little light can repel the darkness and reveal. When Jewish women around the world light shabbat candles, as they will all do before sundown tonight, they bring some light and warmth into this world. Shabbat shalom to everyone who is seeking it.