Archive for December, 2014

Vayigash: The Breakthrough of Conscience

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.(Bereshit/ Genesis 45:1)
Good morning! 
Two weeks ago I used the image of Yosef being thrown into the pit by his brothers to reflect on the recently released Senate report on American interrogation techniques used by the CIA. Some call these “enhanced interrogation techniques,” some call it “torture,” some defend the CIA as doing what it had to do to protect the country, and others, including the Senators who released the report, believe that harsh interrogation never worked. A quick Google search will reveal different arguments around the report, but for today’s purposes I want to reflect on the fact that the controversy seems to have gone away in a matter of weeks. I got some pushback from couple of friends and colleagues for writing that Torah commentary, but mostly, like the furor in the media for a few days after the report was released, the Internet has moved on to other things. 

Yet I can’t help but feel that this is no ordinary partisan political narishkeit. We learned that American interrogators broke people physically and mentally, froze them to death, shackled them on shattered limbs and drove them near mad from sleep deprivation and near-drowning- people who in many cases were not “terrorists,” but suspects, proven guilty of no wrong, and in at least 26 cases, guilty of nothing other than being misidentified. Yes, sometimes innocents suffer during war, but I was always taught to believe that America didn’t make it a policy to break the bones of prisoners and captives. 
Back to this week’s Torah portion. After being sold into slavery, Yosef rises up in Pharaoh’s court and becomes the Viceroy, with the power of life and death in his hands. His brothers come to seek food, but do not recognize him, and after an extended period of testing their priorities and loyalties, Yosef finally reveals himself after Yehudah’s heartfelt plea to spare the life of Binyamin, the youngest brother. Countless commentaries have been written on the emotional dynamics between Yosef and his brothers, but for today I’d like to imagine that Yosef breaks out in in tears because his conscience finally overwhelms his desire for vengeance. He could have had his brothers imprisoned or killed, and he seemed to enjoy testing them, playing a game of cat-and-mouse, trying to see if they would turn on the favored younger son Binyamin the way they turned on him. 
Yet at some point Yosef decides it’s enough, it’s not worth it, or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to become what his brothers were when they treated him so cruelly. He has them in his power, but can no longer tolerate what he is becoming by the abuse of his power. 
What is so shocking to me about Senate report is that we’ve all just moved on- there is little outcry anymore, as far as I can tell. Maybe our world is such a cruel place that 26 innocent prisoners just can’t shock the conscience, or maybe the pundits and partisans have succeeded in covering up all the real issues in smoke and confusion, but three weeks later, I’m still hoping that somebody with great moral standing will be like Yosef, pricked into conscience, able to stand up and say, “no more games, this is not who we are, we shall not sink to the level of our enemies.” I’m still hoping that someone will say: the very test of our society is to use the power of life and death wisely; there can hardly be a more important concern.
The story of Yosef is the story of a man who had every opportunity to take cruel revenge but caught himself, so that he didn’t become that which he hated. That is his greatness, and his example. 
Shabbat Shalom, 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Vayeshev: The Darkness of our Dungeon

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Vayeshev
When Yosef came up to his brothers, they stripped Yosef of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. (Bereshit/ Genesis 37:23-24)
This week’s Torah portion begins the story of Yosef and his descent down into Egypt. When we first meet him, Yosef is an arrogant young man, seemingly unaware that his dreams of dominance strike his brothers as arrogant and aggressive. Yosef’s famous striped (or colored) coat, given by their father Yakov, is a source of friction and jealousy, so when the brothers enact their plan to kill Yosef- later reduced to merely selling him into slavery- they first strip his coat, the symbol of their father’s unequal love and Yosef’s unique status among the brothers. Taking Yosef’s coat was a way to humiliate him, to take his sense of identity and confidence, to break his spirit and force him to recognize that he is no longer the master of his own fate. 
Lest we think that such humiliation and determination to break a prisoner’s spirit is a harsh relic of the ancient past, this past week Americans were reminded that we, too, have blood on our hands- both the blood of innocents and the metaphorical guilt associated with extraordinarily cruel attempts to break prisoners with torture. The Senate Intelligence Committee released part of a report (only a small part, really- most of it was classified) in which we learned in great detail how the CIA tortured prisoners captured in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Key finding and quotes here.) 
Let’s be very clear about three things: first, this was physical and psychological torture. Not “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but torture, meant to inflict extraordinary suffering. Torture like beatings, forced standing on broken limbs, simulated drowning (aka “waterboarding”), freezing people to death, stripping them naked and chaining them to the wall, forcing fluids into the anus as a way of “rehydrating” prisoners on a hunger strike, threatening prisoners or their families with sexual abuse, religious humiliation and so on. See here and here for more details, and remember, this information were from the CIA’s own documents. 
Second, the Senate report shows clearly that torture never worked. There was never a “ticking time bomb” scenario, never a time when torturing one person could be shown to have saved others. All claims to the contrary are undercut by the CIA’s own documentation. John McCain, of all people who should know, points out the obvious: people will say anything to get the torture to stop. 
Finally, please remember: even if you believe (and I hope you don’t) that accused terrorists deserve no due process, no mercy and no protections of the Geneva Conventions, the CIA admits that at least 26 people we tortured were completely innocent- just the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. (See the last item on this list of findings.) We tortured innocent people, again and again. 
This week’s Torah portion twice portrays Yosef doing down into a dark place of imprisonment- first the pit his brothers prepared, and then later, Pharoah’s dungeon, where Yosef was sent after the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife. God was with Yosef in Pharoah’s dungeon, but the baker imprisoned with him wasn’t so lucky, and died at his captor’s whim. When we think about the abuse of power that results in arbitrary suffering, confinement, and death, we cannot, after the release of the Senate report, think of other places, other times, other countries other Pharaoh. We must instead reflect on our own duties as citizens to say, loudly and clearly: not in my name, because this is not the America I love, and I will never again support those in power who abuse their power so cruelly.
This week’s Torah portion isn’t only about Yosef and his brothers. It’s also about us, right now, and the moral imperative to call our country to account for terrible crimes committed in dark and secret dungeons where men like Yosef suffered unimaginably, sometimes for no reason at all. 
We can do better. Please don’t look away, but click the links, learn more, and think hard. 
Shabbat Shalom, 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest. 

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Vayishlach: The Logic of Violence

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: Vayishlach 

Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” But they answered, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Genesis/ Bereshit 34:30-31)

Good morning! 
This week’s Torah reading has several well known narratives: the first is the putative reconciliation between Yaakov and his estranged brother Esav; the second is the story of Dinah, Yaakov’s daughter, and the vengeance of her brothers upon her oppressors; and the third is Yaakov’s return to Beth-El and reaffirmation of his covenant with the God of his fathers. 
It’s the second of these that seems appropriate for mention today. In short, Yaakov and his camp dwell near the clan of a man named Shechem and his father Hamor. Shechem sexually assaults Dinah, bringing shame and dishonor to her family, so her brothers Shimon and Levi trick the men of her clan into circumcising themselves and then massacre them during recovery. The verses quoted above are the end of the story: Yaakov confronts his sons with the terrible implication of their deed, and they answer back with their understandable- but not really justifying- motivation. 
Note that Yaakov doesn’t exactly tell Shimon and Levi was morally wrong to trick and kill the men of Shechem’s camp. Rather, he points out that it was very, very unwise, since now his family will have a bad reputation and may be at the mercy of stronger forces. On the other hand, we have a strong hint that he really did think Shimon and Levi did a terrible thing: at the end of his life, on his deathbed, Yaakov refers to Shimon and Levi as mean of wanton violence and he curses them for their anger and wrath. (Cf. Bereshit 49:5-7
My sense is that Yaakov knew that Shimon and Levi, still hot with emotion, could not be persuaded of their guilt in perpetrating a crime upon innocents. Yes, Shechem raped or seduced Dinah, but even if one argued that Shechem deserved to die for what he did, that hardly justifies killing the men of his clan, unless one reasoned that they would strike back in retaliation, which in turn merely proves Yaakov’s point about the cycle of violence. So rather than denounce his sons as criminals, he tells them what he thinks they might be able to hear: that they were unwise and party to unforeseen consequences. 
Shimon and Levi answer their father: “should our sister be treated like a whore?” as if one crime naturally justified another in a world that respects only brute force. It’s the impeccable logic of violence, but I think Yaakov is trying to make the point that there is rarely perfect justice in this world, and sometimes we have to settle for the justice we can in order to avoid greater crimes and more bloodshed. 
There is no perfect justice in this world, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for the justice we can achieve; it means that everybody, on all sides of a conflict, may have to take some share of the responsibility in avoiding further cycles of violence and retaliation. It means that in an America where all too often, minority communities experience the police as using unjustified force, resulting in needless deaths, wisdom dictates humility and contrition on the part of those who wield force. There is no perfect justice in systems created by fallible human beings, but the logic of retaliation and rage only ensures further injustice upon innocents. Human beings are experts at finding justification for their baser actions, but breaking cycles of violence means backing down, even at the cost of honor. 
We can always find reasons to hate. The hard part is pushing hate aside to measure our response to tragedy, so that the pursuit of justice is not merely a cover for the logic of vengeance. The difference between justice and vengeance is the most important thing in the world at times like these, and the responsibility of everyone who cares about a decent world for our children. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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