Where are the giants?

Turning to a parallel fear: where are the giants of yesteryear?  The Churchills, Roosevelts, MacArthurs, Queen Mums, the Pattons, de Gaulles – or, on the other, blacker, side, the Stalins, Hitlers, Mussolinis, and Maos?  

Leon Wieseltier noted this, toward the end of his appearance as discussant, when at historic Shearith Yisrael in NYC, reputedly the oldest synagogue in the country, and the site, now, of lively lectures, intellectual banquets, new-book powwows, and canonical concerts.  Shearith was built in 1654 and, interestingly, until 1825, was the sole Jewish congregation in New York City.  It is known as the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue and resides still on the magnificent footprint of its original site on Central Park West, still a smile away from the ever engaging, ever verdant Central Park.

Wieseltier, a 30-plus-year editor of the respected, left-of-center New Republic, is a protean figure.  A graduate of Harvard, Oxford, Balliol College, and Columbia, he cuts a magisterial figure, thus not one to be trifled with.  He spoke in the spacious, elegant, Iberian-style Shearith sanctuary, invited to discuss with the resident rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveitchik the merits of and differences between two national documents.  Wieseltier departed TNR after altercations with the managerial staff over changes he disapproved of, largely involving, if one can believe the scuttlebutt, technological upgrades.

Title of the evening’s discussion: "A tale of two states: Comparing the Declaration of Independence of Israel [14 May 1948] and America [4 July 1776].

The cultivated literary editor, a cloud of snowy-white hair ringing his florid face like a barely contained riotous splay of cotton bolls, anchored in the middle by a captive, marooned black kipa, discoursed orotundly with the piquant, droll Soloveitchik, who himself bears quite the résumé of parts: scion of an important family of revered rabbi-scholars in addition to possessing an easy and contextual familiarity with the cultural touchstones we all hearken to, whether we like to admit it or no.  At one point, one was amused to hear the interlocutor rabbi replacing “et cetera” in one question with the Seinfeldian “yadda yadda yadda.”

The discussion was understandably bifurcated by the disparate years of the two declarations, each reflecting the noblest – but socioeconomic and thematic – sentiments of their respective authorship.  Thus, the later document ensures equality for all in the fledgling state, no matter the citizen’s religion, sex, or race:

The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for all its inhabitants. It will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions [note that Middle Eastern neighbors do not respect this sacred duty to the past, present, or future. – MDSD], and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Sadly, even the U.N. fails to uphold its own founding principles these days.

A document notable for its courtesy, inclusivity, and historical awareness, and ahead of its time – as well as starkly unlike the primal charters of many nations more populous and bellicose, Israel’s Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel remains a soaring repository of the rights of people of which we can be justifiably proud.

Wieseltier read aloud an arresting letter written by Prime Minister of the State of Israel Ben Gurion that reflected Ben Gurion’s profound knowledge of the Tanach/Talmud and holy writ in general, as well as his mastery of the principles of modern philosophy and civilization, a letter found in the archives.  The mention of G-d was not in evidence in the declaration, as many of the pioneers who fought for and lawfully wrested back the land of Palestine from the common ambient enemies of the state and of Jews were non-observant, atheists, or agnostic non-believers, and it was deemed wiser to avoid mention of the Deity.

Nonetheless, practically every new resident of the land was completely conversant with the Bible and its sequellae.  “Is that still true today, Leon?” the rabbi asked.  Wieseltier shook his considerable head.  “I’m afraid that is no longer true.”

The discussion ranged back and forth between the two men, noting how circumstances had adjusted to the documents in various ways and how evolving trends made their peace with the foundational documents.

Toward the end, Wieseltier lamented the apparent fall from grace and puissance of leaders in the world today, bemoaning the urgencies of the day and our need for “giants.”

“We no longer have the giants – good and bad – that we had in times of great travail and trial in WWII.  We today live in equally historic and pressing times, but the leaders of today” are inconsequential, smaller men.  “You are all living in historic times, whether you know it or not.”

About 200 guests filled the airy, central room.  Toward the end of the side-by-side discussion of the two documents, which we all held in multi-page handouts in English and Hebrew, Wieseltier read Ben Gurion’s extraordinary archival letter that showed how knowledgeable and forward-thinking the man was – amazing to have been penned 70 years ago, before the Civil Rights Acts or TV or the internet and numerous nativist clamorings for freedom and self-determination.

All went intellectually well until the end, where Wieseltier metaphorically rose like a latter-day Moses and spoke of the unheralded historical times we are living through, no less amazing than the ’40s, he emphasized, but with no “titanic political figures, both good and evil.”  In his cultivated tones, he said it is imperative for us “to crush Trump, to destroy him” utterly.  He did not say why, of course, and did not endorse Trump’s opposite number, but he cut the audience no slack in telling them Trump must be destroyed, citing the well-known Roman phrase, “Carthago delenda est” – Carthage must be destroyed.

At this point, many seated on the benches were silently shaking their heads no.  The crowd was quiet and did not applaud.

It was not that Wieseltier is so leftist that he got practically a coronary, his face suddenly apoplectic with conviction and anger, telling strangers to extirpate a Republican candidate for president.  It was that his work there was to discuss the written declarations of the U.S. and Israel, not sell an unsuspecting audience of mostly observant Jews and interested philo-Zionist attendees on his leftist crank.

Afterward, knots of people stood outside chattering about how inappropriate he had been – how he had not taken the measure of the audience, and how peculiar his brazen jeremiad against Trump seemed to people who wore kipas and were not sympathetic to such comments.  We were hyper-aware of his vituperative words and tone, spat out, perhaps imagining that we – agreed? – with him.

Privately, his opinion would not have caused a commotion.  In this context, at this delicate point of issues and politics, with this formal title, he seemed decidedly out of line.

In a feeble stab at justifying his diatribe, one attendee noted to five or six people outside, “Well, he’s not as leftist as some people are.”  Small comfort.

The imprecations against Trump, whether fair or foul, left a bad taste in the mouth.

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