Thursday, July 24, 2014

 When Will We Be Civilized?
Rudolph H. Weingartner
   In the recent New York Review of Books blog, Garry Wills gives four tough “assignments” to Pope Francis, that must be carried out if he is to succeed in eliminating sexual predation by members of the Catholic clergy.* I don’t think that he is optimistic about their implementation.  The issue is hardly new.  Discussion of priests molesting children goes back some decades; the practice, I would guess, goes back centuries.  Discussion, moreover, has largely focused on responsible supervision of clerics in their interaction with children, with special emphasis, of course, on the removal and punishment of transgressors.  Carrying out these two functions effectively are surely necessary conditions for the elimination of sexual predation but just as surely not sufficient.  But the elimination of the priestly requirement of celibacy, which would take us closer to sufficiency, is not likely in the foreseeable future or even beyond it.
    No command to maintain celibacy, to say the least, is a cause of sexual harassment and rape in the American armed forces.  The increase in the last few years of such incidents is no doubt related both to the increased numbers of women who have entered the military and to the considerable broadening of the roles they there assume.  But the fact that these crimes occur at all is rooted in the arrogance of the perpetrators that they can just take what they desire and in the abysmal failure of the the military establishment to deal with the issue—from being discreet recipients of complaints to conducting tactful investigations to meting out effective punishment when guilt has been determined.
   Sexual harassment to the point of rape is clearly widespread on college campuses all around the country.  The causes are similar to those in the military: arrogance and institutional failure to deal with the issue, from dubious agencies where complaints can be lodged to inadequate methods of investigation to punishment that mostly falls far short of serving as a deterrent.
   We are more than a decade into the twenty-first century, and are speaking about the United States, a country that prides itself to be a leading member of the enlightened West.  We have made great strides in the acceptance of homosexuals, even if we have not yet reached the open-mindedness of ancient Greece.  And of course we have long professed to believe in the equality of men and women, looking down on those corners of the globe—in the Middle East and Africa in particular—where women are treated as inferior to men. 
   And yet, in three large spheres of our own world we are only beginning to learn to cope with a serious aspect of the reality of the inequality of men and women, not to mention to implement adequately our professions of love for our children.  Ongoing discussions make it clear that the will to do the right thing is at best half-hearted and that a country rife with investigative know-how and sophisticated policing and judicial institutions is unable to deal with widespread criminal behavior.  When, indeed, will we become civilized?    


Sunday, July 6, 2014

How I am Jewish
Rudolph H. Weingartner
   My pedigree is spotless, at least as far as I can determine.  My maternal grandparents were named Kahn, the Jewishness of which needs no explanation.  An ancestor of my paternal grandfather was an inhabitant of the little town of Weingarten in the south of Baden and when it became customary to add a surname to the given name, instead of referring to a trade—that is, instead of Joe the Cook—his surname became Weingärtner, somebody from Weingarten, in accord with the widespread practice of naming Jews as residents of the towns they lived in, as with the more familiar Hamburger, Berliner, or Frankfurter.  The four of them—born in the middle of the last century in small towns in Baden—were quite strictly observant Jews, close to what today would be called “modern orthodox.”  They dressed like other middle class townspeople and while they interacted with their non-Jewish neighbors, they didn’t socialize with them.  (The same, I might interject, was true of my parents, even before the Nazis came to power.)
   My father followed in his parents’ observant footsteps and while my mother had a streak of skepticism, she was an obedient wife, mostly.  When I was a child in Heidelberg, where I was born not long after my father went into business there, our home was quite strictly kosher.  The Sabbath was observed: we walked a fairly long distance to the synagogue, not taking the trolley and we abstained from all work including homework for school.  But we did use light switches and while my mother finished cooking before it was time to light the Sabbath candles by sundown on Friday, she did turn on the gas to warm our meals.  The holidays were observed with all the trimmings, such as eating on two special sets of Passover dishes, one for meat, the other for dairy; a Sukkah was created on an open porch, there was fasting on Yom Kippur—and so on around the year.
   From a young age, I received religious instruction after school, never very high powered, nothing resembling a Yeshiva.  That practice that continued in New York, where we arrived shortly after my twelfth birthday.  For my Bar Mitzvah, I read quite a few portions from the Torah plus the haphtarah, singing lustily and in tune—music was already my thing.  I did not make a speech—no “today I am a fountain pen,” as the joke then had it.  That was not the custom in this rump German-Jewish congregation that held its Sabbath service in the hall in which Malcolm X was murdered a quarter of a century later.  When we moved from Manhattan to Jackson Heights, I sang in the Synagogue choir and came to conduct it at the conservative after-dinner Friday night service, while Felix Alt accompanied cantor and choir on the organ.  A much smaller group of orthodox congregants had had their service earlier—without organ of course.  No organ at any of  the High Holiday services, so Felix conducted and I just sang, by then a baritone.
   When I left for the Navy in 1945, after graduating from high school, I was thanked by the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights for my services and given a silver bracelet engraved with my name and a woodcut-illustrated Haggadah, the book that contains instructions and text for the Passover Seder.
   Things went downhill from there, but at a slow pace.  I mostly lived at home (for financial reasons) while going to College at Columbia after a stint on an LST.  I joined my parents for High Holiday services and some of the other holidays, but seldom on the Sabbath.  I never sought out kosher food when eating out, while my parents’ eating habits also relaxed so much that they would have been sharply reproved by their parents had they still been alive.  Still, for them emphatically no pork.  I  promptly joined the Seixas Society, then Columbia’s Jewish students’ organization with a bona fide rabbi in charge.
   It never occurred to me not to join.  More broadly, I have always felt that I must identify myself as Jewish.  I don’t have any of the cliché Jewish characteristics—in behavior or appearance.  The grotesque cartoons of Jews in the Stürmer, the Nazi “newspaper” entirely devoted to maligning Jews, resemble none of my blood relatives; my mother’s father looked  like President Taft and my father’s father blended in very well among the farmers of the small town where he lived most of his life.  Moreover, in spite of what I have said above, my name actually does not reveal that I am Jewish, because it turns out to be a homonym.  There are  plenty of non-Jewish Weingärtners whose names do not  derive from a town, but, in conformity with medieval practice, from the occupation of  vineyard-keeper, which is what a Weingärtner is.  That makes it like  other profession names like Müller or, in English, like such surnames as Smith, Carpenter, or Cooper.
   Nor do I assertively proclaim my Jewishness, rubbing my interlocutors’ noses in that fact.  But somehow I soon manage to convey my affiliation to all but the most casual acquaintances.  You can give credit—or blame—to Hitler for this proclivity.  On the one hand, I lived through the Kristallnacht, seeing the smashed furniture of the couple of rooms of the Heidelberg Jewish school, saw the smoke rising from the burning synagogue as I biked back home and from there, watched when, a few hours later, my father was arrested to be taken to Dachau.  On the other hand, because we were Jewish, we emigrated from Germany to New York when, as I mentioned, I was twelve.  In the United States I came to lead a life that has been radically different, I surmise, from that I would have led as the son of a minor businessman in a very pretty but provincial town.  Perhaps I would have enjoyed that life; who knows?  But rather than speculate about what did not happen, it is no counterfactual but reality that the rich and varied American life that I led was thanks to the fact that I am Jewish.  You will have to take my word for “rich and varied” or go to the two autobiographical books I have published.*
   But I certainly don’t want to leave it at that and have my Jewishness be dependent on the anti-Semitism of the Nazis!  For starters, Judaism consists of a set of beliefs and of practices.  Without getting into a quasi-anthropological discussion, I will simply assert that in my view Jews are not a race.  I am as Caucasian as Billy Graham, my elder by nine years. From that it would follow that the issue is not readily settled by the fact that my parents and known forbears were Jewish.
   So I turn to beliefs, at the center of which is of course the belief in God.  As the often-recited single sentence has it—congregation standing—“Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”  For many years I never really thought about this central issue.  I was no precocious intellectual.  I sang with the rest of them and went with the flow.  But that gradually changed; not surprising as philosophy became my main subject in college.  The flow was no longer good enough nor, as it turned out, was anything else.  I bring no news when I say that none of the extant proofs for the existence of God does the job.  Theists and deists, however, might be comforted by the fact that when, many years ago, Michael Scriven, then a philosophy professor, gave a paper to the San Francisco State Philosophy Club that consisted of a number of proofs of God’s nonexistence, the only instance of such an effort familiar to me.  No competent person in the audience thought he had succeeded.
   That leaves at least two sets of additional possibilities, one classical and one modern.  Faith stands at the center of the first: believe in God on the basis of evidence unseen.  While for some that may be convincing, I may be simplistic in holding that in order for that to work, a person somehow must want to believe.  However, I neither want to believe nor do I want not to believe.  What I do want is evidence, arguments, anything that makes me, pushes me to believe.  In the Enlightenment version of this path, God is posited to explain the order of things in the universe, an elaboration of the Argument from Design.  But besides the retort that much of this order is in the eye of the beholder, it is also possible to hold that we simply don’t know just why the world works the way it does.  What is wrong with such modesty?
   Of course, since those 18th century deists, scientists have found out a good deal about how the world works.  Just consider Einstein and his physicist descendents and Darwin and the biologists who have been refining and elaborating his theories.  Their discoveries explain a good deal of why things are the way they are.  Everything?  Certainly not.  But ignorance of, for instance, what caused the Big Bang or the fact that there are gaps, unknowns, in evolutionary theory strikes me as a feeble reason for positing a divine cause or adopting a doctrine of creationism.  There are lots of things we don’t know, some of which will in time be found out, others not. The end of the sciences is not in sight.
   I am not attempting to persuade anyone with these few paragraphs; I am only  stating what I think.  And I realize that what I think makes me an atheist.  I accept that label rather than that of  agnostic because rather than being open to supernatural answers to questions that remain unanswered, I am willing to say that we just don’t know, at any rate, not yet.
   That makes me a Jewish atheist, an odd combination of labels though perhaps not all that uncommon.  There are those, after all, who maintain that the Jewish religion is not so much rooted in a set of beliefs, but in the myriad behavioral prescriptions to be found in the Old Testament as subsequently interpreted.
   So, how well do I manage to follow those Old Testament commandments? Very very poorly indeed; that is to say, not at all except for now and then desultory observances.  While I can claim that this laxness is in part the result of the way my entire life has changed during the last two decades, that is hardly an excuse.  The fact is that in abstaining from virtually all prescribed practices, I acquiesced to the attenuation of my Jewishness insofar as it is embodied in those traditional observances.
   What remains of Jewishness besides beliefs and prescribed behaviors?  A number of what might be called secondary characteristics that are, to be sure, shared with very many who are not Jewish, but are statistically more prevalent among Jews.  Placing a high value on education, is central and has happily been passed on to my children and grandchildren.  Political liberalism is another, rooted in a concern for fellow human beings, perhaps unconsciously engendered by a history of persecution—as in there but for the grace of God go I.  While his term is about to end, the arch-conservative Eric Cantor has been the only Republican Jew in the House of Representatives where Republicans are in the majority.  The odds are that after the coming election there will be none.  An excellent sculptor acquaintance of mine, an African American, once quipped to me, “The only people who collect art are artists and Jews.”  I have purchased works of art all my life—of course no Rembrandts.  On the other hand, I lack the interest in and cleverness with money widely believed to be a Jewish trait.  But then all of my cousins seem in that way to be apostates.
   More such “secondary” traits could probably be listed, but no one of them nor all of them together would really answer the question posed in these reflections.  In the end, I may have to accept the answer that is provided by most of the world, in contradiction to the stance I took above.  Let me explain my thought in a roundabout way.  An American youngster, Anthony, the son of devout Roman Catholic parents, faithfully goes to church with them, receives communion, follows all the rules.  Later, away from home, say in college, Tony stops going to church nor does he go to confession. Moreover, he ceases to believe in the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus nor does he assent to any of the other components of the Credo.  At that point he will surely say of himself that he is no longer a Catholic.  Nor will the world regard him as a Catholic.  Someone who knows his background might refer to him as a lapsed Catholic, but a lapsed Catholic is not a Catholic. 
   Compare and contrast.  Aaron is the son of observant Jewish parents, attends all synagogue services with them, eats only kosher food and more.  As an adult, however, Aaron does none of these things; indeed, he insists on crisp bacon for breakfast.   And yet, whatever Aaron holds himself to be, the world will not call him a lapsed Jew.  There is no such thing.  He is, rather, a non-practicing Jew or a secular Jew.  What Aaron does or does not do is irrelevant to the way he is regarded; he remains a Jew—as do I.
*  *  *  *  *  *  *
   Let me conclude with a coda.  Even though there was plenty of anti-Semitism in America before World War II, I was never aware of having been treated positively or negatively because I was a Jew. I became the first Jewish dean at Northwestern, but never knew who noticed; no one mentioned it.  But now I want to tell of two occasions in my professional career that took place  in the early 1980’s  incidents in which my Jewishness played very different roles.
   When, as a finalist for the provostship of Duke University, I became the only remaining candidate, the then Duke Chancellor and a strong supporter arranged a three-person dinner with the university’s president Terry Sanford.   There was pleasant chit-chat until, at dessert-time, Sanford picked up my curriculum vitae, probably looking at it for the first time.  “I see you were born in Heidelberg” he said.  My cheerful response, “Yes you are looking at a standard issue German Jewish refugee.”  Dead silence.  Quickly the conversation petered out and the dinner ended.  I never heard again from Duke.  But I finally did learn that Sanford’s vaunted liberalism was compatible with quite virulent anti-Semitism.
   Another time I was one of the finalists for the presidency of Brandeis University, all three of us Jewish of course.  Invited to the campus, I was quizzed by a large number of people arrayed around a big conference table—trustees and accessories.  It was a lively and friendly conversation, lasting more than an hour, as I recall it.  I enjoyed it.  What remained for me was breakfast the next morning with Abram Sacher, the university’s founding president.  An interesting experience, all of it, but no offer of the presidency.  Brandeis appointed its first woman president.  I understood that; end of story.
   Not quite.  Many years later I spoke to someone who was familiar with that search.  He told me that many among the deciders thought that I was a good fit for the institution.  The fatal reservation was that in some way I was not sufficiently Jewish.  No one ever raised that issue in our interchanges, so, of course, I did not address it.  Had I known, I would happily have sung for them my favorite Sabbath hymn, though I would have done so in the Ashkenazi pronunciation of my youth.  Ve’shomru benei Yisroel es ha’shabbos . . . .  I have a terrific melody for it.
 July 6, 2014

*Mostly About Me: A Path through Different Worlds (2003) and A Sixty-Year Ride through the World of Education (2007).