Tag Archives: separation of church and state

On Jewish, Christian, and Arab Peoples


A correction precedes the second part of this posting (7/24/14).

Last Sunday I went with my youngest daughter and 10-year-old grandson to see a production of Fiddler on the Roof, perhaps my favorite musical play of all time. In my youth I had read the script by Joseph Stein; more recently I have read in translation the Yiddish stories of Sholom Aleichem, among them the stories of Tevye and his daughters upon which the play is based. Sholom Aleichem, which is a pen name that means “Peace be with you,” was a contemporary of the also pseudonymous Mark Twain and was sometimes compared to him or alternatively to Charles Dickens, though translator Frances Butwin contends that the Jewish author was completely original. I don’t doubt that he was.

I had previously seen the play, perhaps a quarter century ago, in a performance at my old church in Bloomington, Indiana. That production benefited from a number of talented people from the university and a particularly convincing Tevye. This version included a cast composed completely of students from the Evansville-Vanderburgh Schools, from junior high through recent high-school graduates. And as the review in the newspaper had said after the first night’s show, it was easy to forget that they were not Broadway actors.

Nicholas enjoyed it tremendously but had a bit of a hard time wrapping his mind around the cruel disruption of Tzeitl’s wedding by Russian officials and hooligans, and the general concept of anti-Jewish pogroms that were a long-standing and recurrent reality for European Jews. The greatest pogrom of all, I suppose we could say metaphorically, was the Holocaust itself which speeded up the Zionist project of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.

Asked what his favorite part of it all was, anyway, Nicholas said something along the lines of: “I don’t know. All of it.” His favorite song? “If I Were a Rich Man,” an answer that did not surprise me. For my part I am always particularly touched by the tender song that Tevye sings about his third daughter, Chava, who has taken these modern daughters’ new ways of approaching marriage to an intolerable extreme by being wedded by a Russian Orthodox priest to a Christian man – a member of the same people behind all the pogroms and greater or lesser holocausts of a long Jewish past and present. In the end there is the modest beginning of at least a partial reconciliation with that beloved daughter, but her choice to marry outside of the faith was what made the metaphorical fiddler lose his precarious balance – maintained by the comfort of centuries of Tradition – and fall off the roof.

images[3]Sholom Aleichem’s stories about Tevye and his daughters include the stories of a pair of younger daughters who inhabit the play’s background. The essentials of the first three stories, if not every detail, are present onstage. As for the others, all I will say is that each new story seems to become progressively sadder than the previous one. But beneath the sorrows there is always hope and, ultimately, the self-deprecating and loquacious humor that makes of Tevye such a memorable and beloved character.


CORRECTION: In the following commentary I mistakenly state that the present stage of Israel’s Gaza war began with a barrage of Palestinian rockets to avenge the deaths of three Palestinian youths, probably by extremist Jewish settlers. In fact it was the lynching of one Palestinian youth in response to an earlier kidnapping and killing — apparently by random thugs rather than Hamas — of three Israeli youth. While this does not affect the accompanying observation about the imbalance between Israeli and Palestinian deaths in the subsequent fighting, I nevertheless regret the un-fact-checked statement (7/24/14).

What follows, a review of Albert Hourani’s 1991 book A History of the Arab Peoples, comes straight (lightly edited) from last night’s handwritten journal; to the extent that there is any criticism of the Zionist project and militaristic policies of the Israeli state, I hope that what is said above establishes that I am no enemy of Jewish peoples:

51X0qObJk0L._SL300_[1]“This I read slowly over a period of months, I don’t recall exactly when I started, alongside my other readings. As is perhaps to be expected of such a book with such a broad scope, it is a slow read and rather dry; in some ways more repetitive and not as pleasurable a read as, say, John A. Crow’s Spain: The Root and the Flower which I read years ago in Dan Quilter’s class. There is some overlap between the two books, a briefer treatment here of Al-Andalus: the Moorish kingdom in Spain between 711 and 1492. Granted, at least geographically speaking Crow’s subject is more focused, less diffuse, but the time frame is even bigger and the prose just more poetic than Hourani’s nevertheless perfectly competent writing.

“What I most enjoyed here are the discussions of culture and the arts. The range of Islamic thought, the articulation of its philosophy and artistic vision and scholarship, is always intriguing. That is why I have long been so interested in the history and literatures of Al-Andalus, by the mix of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian wisdom that prospered there for a time. And this book shows that through significant parts of Islamic history, those religious communities were and have been quite capable of living together in peace, if generally the Muslims would have certain privileges and less of a tax burden than the others.

“Likewise I am deeply interested in the book’s fifth section with its emphasis on the rise of nation states and emergence of the present Israeli-Palestinian crisis which seems so increasingly and depressingly intractable. And without getting too specific I have the impression that, while the Palestinians do from time to time act in a way that seems at the least incredibly stupid (as in the past month when, to avenge the deaths of three Palestinian youths – probably at the hands of extremist Jewish settlers in the long-disputed territories – they have sent rocket after rocket at Israel with minimal loss in Jewish lives while Israeli retaliation is causing hundreds more Palestinian deaths), it is my impression, anyway, that the danger Israel has faced from the Arab countries has from the outset been greatly – or at least somewhat – exaggerated.

“I could be wrong, but I don’t speak without considerable support from this and other sources and years of reading. Consider how short, after all, was the 1967 war, which deeply humiliated the Arab world and dashed their hopes of pan-Arabian unity in the defense of a Palestinian nation. By Hourani’s evidence alone, though he doesn’t make a big point of it, it is fairly clear that the Israeli state acted, even at that time, in bad faith, with no real intention of returning lands and with every intention of building and expanding into the disputed Palestinian territories. One wonders how much hostility might have been averted, after that show of strength, by a genuine effort to make a lasting peace. As it is, and this is a view expressed within Israel by Jewish critics of the Israeli military state, it seems evident that to a frightening extent the Israeli state has taken on, relative to the Palestinian Arab people, something of the monstrous quality of the Nazi state relative the the European Jew of the first half of the 20th century. Because, look, the Palestinian people that the Zionist movement or Israeli state violently uprooted in 1948 had lived in that land at least as long as the Jewish people had been exiled from it and previously inhabited it.

“The great sin of the Jewish state is surely that, in their push to establish a land for themselves, and to keep their own people from ever again being the victims of a Holocaust, they have been thoughtlessly willing to subject Palestinian Arabs to holocausts great and small. And U.S. policy that has made the seemingly endless perpetuation of this injustice possible only makes it increasingly unlikely that a just peace can ever be attained. By the time the Jewish state is able to look with humanity at the people they have displaced, will those people have gone the route of the American Indian? And if so, in this age of nuclear threats and massive international terrorism from radicals throughout the Islamic world, at what cost of war and destruction around the globe? And to what extent has the Israelis’ own nuclear arsenal made the threat of nuclear proliferation in that region more ominous rather than less?

“Be all that as it may, clearly we need to take a much closer and more empathetic look at the Arab peoples and their complex of motives and aspirations in our time, with their origins in our shared and competing pasts. They are really, at the risk of falling into a cliché, not so different from us in that respect. Just in the context of the last century, for instance, and in the wake of the Palestinian and Arab losses of 1948 and 1967 and beyond, and of the disintegration of Pan-Arabian hopes for a united Arab people to stand beside the great caliphates and empires of their noble past, of all the humiliations of recent decades, it is understandable that there has been a fundamentalist religious backlash and a concerted effort, on the part of some, to re-establish a strictly religious and moral Islamic state.

“How different are we, after all, here in the land of the free and home of the brave? We who in the face of social and economic unrest also have our Christian elements who would establish a state religion and replace all modern, verifiable, testable science with the authority of the Book of Genesis? God save us from such madness and superstition (the Bible was surely never intended as a science text, in anything approaching the modern sense!) which causes vast numbers of us to disbelieve in the proven verities of Darwinian science and keeps us from reaching a sensible agreement about the causes of present-day climate change – before it is too late to at least mitigate the difficult changes that are already taking place at a rate far and above what even science has predicted.

passionate_nomads[1] (2)“No, we are not so superior as we think to the ‘savage’ peoples we have cast as our enemies throughout history. This is a truth that Lucio Mansilla made clear in 1870 with his profoundly humane book about Argentina’s Ranquel Indians. A truth well remembered in María Rosa Lojo’s novel of historical fantasy called, in my translation, Passionate Nomads. It is a book that deserves a much broader readership than it is so far getting in this nation whose history of genocide against America’s native peoples is very similar to Argentina’s. A point that Lucina Schell makes exceptionally clear in her review of January 2014 in her Reading in Translation  blog.”


For the link to that and Jan Pytalski’s January review of my translation of María Rosa’s book, see my own blog entries for January 2014. If you are a university professor or know of one who might benefit from incorporating the novel into their course work, please have them contact me or Jay Miskowiec at Aliform Publishing. It would surely be appropriate to a course in Latin American or Native American Studies, Comparative or Argentine or South American Literature, or other related fields.


On love and marriage, religion and morality

His Dark Materials: 1. The Golden Compass (or, Northern Lights) 2. The Subtle Knife 3. The Amber Spyglass 2.

His Dark Materials:
1. The Golden Compass (or, Northern Lights)
2. The Subtle Knife
3. The Amber Spyglass

In The Amber Spyglass, the final book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy for young and discerning older readers, which I have just now been re-reading, the physicist and former nun Dr. Mary Malone tells lead protagonists Lyra and Will the story of how she lost her religious vocation. It is an affecting account, one which includes a Proustian moment when a sweet taste of marzipan brought back the remembrance of a childhood romance and reminded her of the sweet joys of spirit and flesh in union (like the adult Proust’s taste of a madeleine, a kind of pastry from his childhood, which brought back all the stream of memories that became his multi-volume In Search of Lost Time). “‘And I thought,’ [Mary] says: ‘am I really going to spend the rest of my life without ever feeling that again? […] Will anyone be better off if I go back to the hotel and say my prayers and confess to the priest and promise to never fall into temptation again? Will anyone be the better for making me miserable?

“‘And the answer came back – no. No one will. There’s no one to fret, no one to condemn, no one to bless me for being a good girl, no one to punish me for being wicked….’”

Indeed I have long wondered what kind of loving God, sitting up on some cloud in all His infinite wisdom, would spend so much time fretting over who loves whom and how they express it instead of the more substantial concerns of these books: keeping promises to those we love, for example, even at the cost of our own deep suffering; accepting responsibility for oneself and others; respecting and working to preserve the earth, the planet, the universe that we inhabit; truth-telling when truth is most needed, and loving as fiercely as we may occasionally have to fight; but above all nurturing brave and peaceable hearts that hate bloodshed, that keep us from senseless acts of cruelty and violence and oppression, that allow us to create the space in which some real measure of peace and harmony might thrive. After all, isn’t Jesus supposed to have said: “Blessed are the peacemakers”?

Those of you who are familiar with these books are aware that they are peopled with human and other sentient beings from a multiverse of subtly and drastically different and overlapping worlds. Lyra comes from a vaguely antiquated English Oxford with its scholars and old buildings and catacombs; and in the larger world she inhabits, roving “gyptians” and bands of children, witches and armored bears and other fierce warriors and adventurers; all of whom, except for the armored bears, have “daemons,” which are in essence the physical manifestation of their conscious soul or animal nature. Will, on the other hand, who has a daemon too but has never seen her, comes from an Oxford much like our own and meets Lyra in a third universe that was once idyllic but is now haunted with ghost-like vampiric “Specters” that suck the souls (or daemons) out of adults, leaving bands of marauding children to fend for themselves.

At the books’ thematic core, though there are so many interrelated and interwoven threads, is something that in Lyra’s world is called Dust but in different worlds is known by different names. This is not ordinary “dust” but “a new kind of elementary particle” that has the Church in Lyra’s world (and scientists and military-espionage and police types in Will’s world) in a state of excitement or panic. A panic which, in Lyra’s world, is centered on the Church’s sinister Magisterium with its Consistorial Court of Discipline and its Oblation Board, which has begun to kidnap poor and marginal children and brutally sever them from their daemons. Why? Because in the Church’s mind Dust, which has something to do with daemons and which begins to manifest itself in bothersome ways at roughly the time of puberty, is also associated with original sin and must at all costs be eradicated.

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman

It must be understood that the fictional-fantastical Church in question – with its mythical counterparts for good and evil in Heaven – is a caricature of the Catholic Church at its historical worst and might be associated with some of Christianity’s darkest periods. It is true that Pullman is himself an acknowledged atheist, and he does not pull any punches in these books in his criticism of religion (even in our real and present world) obsessed with controlling and scaring, punishing and exercising inquisitorial authority. But his is a deeply moral and ethical mythology that the religious are perfectly free (and well advised) to understand by whatever metaphorical principle best serves them. The series, in any case, is inspired by John Milton’s magnificent and challenging 17th-century poem Paradise Lost, which in preparation for this reading I recently tackled in the slightly abridged form of my Norton Anthology of English Literature. Its twin subjects are the Biblical War in Heaven and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Both themes are present here, and Pullman gives a movingly positive twist to the story of Eve’s temptation.

(That is a theme, in fact, that I have re-visited in a very different and more realistic context in my new Young Adult novel Original Sins, for which I am presently seeking an agent or publisher – but that’s another story.)

I come to this theme, anyway, in the immediate context of the new federal court rulings in religiously conservative states like Utah – and now my own Indiana – allowing same-sex marriage.

LGBT Pride Flag

LGBT Pride Flag

This swiftly snowballing trend is something that the consistorial courts of discipline and magisteriums of our day have sought and will continue seeking to prevent or to repeal. But the only way to enforce what strikes an increasing number of good Americans as a morbid and exclusionary sexual morality is to turn our democratic-republican form of government, with its often and willfully misunderstood separation of church and state, into something more closely resembling a theocracy. I was therefore pleased the other day to read in Evansville, Indiana’s Courier & Press the more sensible religious perspective of Lynn Martin of the St. Lucas Church, which appeared under the headline: “United States should not aspire to be a ‘Christian nation’” – as much to protect Christians from each other (as Constitutional originalists ought to remember from the most basic survey of U. S. history) as to protect Christians from non-Christians or non-believers from believers, and in both instances, vice versa.

If one pays attention to the social reality in this country, it is hard to take seriously the frequent assertion that Christianity and its proponents are under assault here. There is a vast difference between a Christian woman in Sudan being sentenced to death for not practicing what their grand inquisitors call (highly questionably) Islam, and our being restricted from putting gigantic crosses in public spaces and imposing the social implications of our theological interpretations of scripture on those who do not share those views. No one is preventing anyone from practicing their Christian faith within their homes or churches, or even of praying over their food in public settings, or any number of other passionate expressions of that faith. But God help you if you’re a Muslim in post-9/11 America. Or (gasp!) one of the “non-believers” that President Obama dared acknowledge in his first inaugural address: “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.”

(On the subject of the contributions and the travails of American Muslims I recommend the book Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers. If I believed in a mandatory American reading list, this would be on it.)

1768In respect to U. S. District Judge Richard Young’s Indiana ruling, we are happy in my house and my children’s homes not only because of all the other Hoosiers who are now able to make legal the truth that has already existed in their hearts, but for mine and Anita’s youngest daughter Stephanie, her wife Rachel, and their little boy Nicholas, our grandson, whose family can now be legally recognized. They were married, as far as all of us are concerned, more than seven years ago on May 26, 2007, in a ceremony with family and friends in Perry County, Indiana, a ceremony that for us remains sacred in the most humane sense of the word. The piece of paper that they applied for, paid for, and had signed and notarized on Thursday is only the legal vindication of the bond that was made holy on that other day. Nicholas, who was three at the time of their wedding and was long ago adopted by Rachel, has been ecstatic with the news –  he and countless other children whose “special” families can now come out of the darkness and present themselves as a complete and viable and privileged unit. And all the evidence contradicts the notion, still popular in the consistorial circles, that children with opposite-sex parents thrive more than those with two moms or two dads.

2208The truth and reality of homosexual as well as heterosexual love (not to mention transgender and other varieties of love that most of us know nothing or next to nothing about) is in fact another theme that Pullman picks up in The Amber Spyglass. The very tender relationship between two male angels, Baruch and Balthamos, is deeply moving. They are never identified as a gay couple, but the bond between the two is immediately so intimate and so powerful that it is at least strongly implied. When Baruch, the more obviously strong and heroic of the two, is killed in the line of duty, Balthamos falls apart for a while and ends up retreating, from his duty to protect and guide the two young heroes Lyra and Will, when the danger becomes too much. But in the end, at the crucial hour, he comes back, conquering his fear to save them (or at least Lyra who is the target of a priestly assassin) at the crucial moment – completely anonymously, without the endangered youth even suspecting it. Clearly he does it out of shame for his earlier collapse, but most of all to honor his deceased partner without whom he has lost the will to live. “‘Baruch,’” he says after the assassin has been permanently sidelined, “‘oh, Baruch, my dear, I can do no more. Will and the girl are safe, and everything will be well, but this is the end for me, though truly I died when you did, Baruch, my beloved.’” And after the paragraph break: “A moment later, he was gone.”

That is one of the most moving passages in this whole series of books or in any other that I can think of. Compare it, for instance, to the pathos of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, whose unhappy end tore at my heartstrings and at my soul so many years ago as a teenager when I saw the BBC television production of her story – and again last year when I finally got around to reading the book. Tolstoy, who had initially planned a rather moralistic novel judging her ultimate fate as simply the natural consequence of her adulterous sin, was also saved from that fate (perhaps by some merciful literary angel) and allowed to write one of the most senstitive and nuanced treatments of a troubled marriage, of the causes of its failure, of human souls in tenderness and torment, of love that promises so much but also consumes.

3229In any case, here’s to all the good people of Indiana and Utah and every other state where a distinct but vital minority of our republic are finally receiving recognition for the basic human right and loving unions that the rest of us have always taken for granted. Who are we to judge who is worthy or unworthy of receiving such possibilities of joy and happiness? Surely life is trying enough without making it all the more so for those who may be different from us in one way or another. And the next time you want to say, “But the Bible tells me so,” explain how so many devout readers of that Good Book (and I was once one of them) would beg to differ.